Nearly 10 years ago, in the wake of declining waterfowl habitat, dwindling duck numbers and two unprecedented duck rallies at the State Capitol, an ambitious plan to help ducks emerged.

The plan, developed by the Department of Natural Resources with input from hunting and conservation groups, offered a 50-year time frame to attain the goals.

But as another duck season opened Saturday amid continued concern over habitat loss, wetland degradation and lack of ducks, some feared that attaining the main goals in the duck plan will be difficult, if not impossible. And expectations might have to be lowered when the plan is updated beginning in 2016.

Here’s why. The 2006 Duck Recovery Plan called for several long-term objectives:

• A state breeding population of 1 million ducks, producing a fall population of 1.4 million ducks.

• A fall duck harvest that is at least 16 percent of the Mississippi Flyway harvest, as it was in the 1970s.

• An average of 140,000 waterfowl hunters.

• Restoring and protecting an additional 2 million acres of wetland-grassland habitat.

Though the plan aimed to accomplish those goals by 2056 — another 40 years — today none of those targets is close to becoming reality, and the trends aren’t encouraging.

Minnesota breeding ducks

Last spring, Minnesota’s breeding duck population was estimated at 524,000, and has averaged 566,000 yearly over the decade. The state also averaged 630,000 breeding ducks from 1968 to 2005, so the 1 million-bird mark might have been overly optimistic. Minnesota did have 1 million breeding ducks in 2004.

“Why set a goal you can achieve by maintaining the status quo?’’ asked Ray Norrgard, DNR wildlife wetland program consultant based in Fergus Falls, who was charged with developing the duck plan. “We didn’t want the status quo. We need to have high goals.’’

Habitat in reverse

To boost breeding duck numbers, the plan suggested adding 2 million acres of wetlands and grasslands, and assumed no net loss of existing habitat. The estimated price tag: $3 billion.

“We were on target the first three years of the plan, adding 40,000 acres a year,’’ Norrgard said. “Then agricultural economics changed, and the wind came out of our sails.’’

High corn and soybean prices meant farmers removed grasslands from the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and planted those fields to crops. The state has lost 247,437 acres — nearly 387 square miles — of CRP lands since 2007, while gaining 93,000 acres of protected lands.

“We’ve seen an increase in lands protected under perpetual easements and fee acquisition,’’ Norrgard said. “The problem is the loss of CRP acreage has overwhelmed that. We’ve lost more than we’ve gained.’’

Shooting our share

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated Minnesota hunters bagged 571,000 ducks last fall, about 8.8 percent of the 6.5 million ducks killed in the 14-state Mississippi Flyway — or about half the 16 percent goal in the duck plan. Hunters here regularly attained that 16 percent figure in the 1980s and even hit the mark several times in the 1990s. But they haven’t shot more than 10 percent of the flyway harvest since 2006.

“If we’re going to continue to have liberal duck seasons, that 16 percent figure is probably unattainable,’’ said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. The idea was for Minnesota to maintain an equitable share of the flyway ducks, he said. But geographic reality trumps that target.

“We’re always going to freeze up here [shortening the season], and southern states will have longer seasons,’’ Cordts said. (Last year, Louisiana’s 77,000 hunters killed 1.9 million ducks.)

The percentage of ducks in the flyway killed by Minnesota hunters increases during conservative, 30-day duck seasons, Cordts said. But this fall is the 19th consecutive liberal, 60-day season, and, given current water conditions and duck population estimates — continentally they are at record highs — it appears Minnesota’s share of the pie won’t grow.

Hunter numbers steady

Minnesota last had at least 140,000 duck hunters in 1979, when a DNR survey estimated 155,000 duck hunters went afield. State and federal surveys now estimate the number at 65,000 to 90,000. (The state sold about 90,000 state duck stamps last year.) But the trend has been flat, and few see the state ever again having 140,000 duck hunters.

“When you look at what’s happening nationally [with hunter numbers falling] I’d say that number no longer is realistic,’’ Norrgard said. “I don’t know what a realistic target is.’’

Said Cordts: “I don’t think anyone thinks we can hit that [140,000]. I’m not sure we’ll ever have 100,000 again. I’d be happy in 20 years if we still have 90,000 duck hunters.’’

Looking to the future

While the main goals of the duck plan appear out of reach, progress has been made, Norrgard said. The plan underscored the habitat challenges facing the state and helped galvanize support for the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which voters approved in 2008.

And the resulting flow of legacy dollars has resulted in numerous improvements to the landscape that are benefiting ducks and other wildlife, he said. Habitat at some of the state’s major waterfowl lakes, including Christina, Swan and Pelican in Wright County, has been improved.

And other actions, including the governor’s buffer initiative, which will add buffers to waterways, should help.

With the DNR’s recently announced pheasant plan, DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr said the agency intends to produce an annual “report card” to update citizens on progress, or lack thereof. He said that idea could be used with the updated duck plan.

Meanwhile, he said he’s optimistic duck habitat is improving, though it’s uncertain whether more ducks will bring back duck hunters.

“I think we are seeing meaningful improvements to waterfowl habitat. But the correlation isn’t clear that we’ll see more duck hunters.’’

 

Doug Smith doug.smith@startribune.com