The only early teal hunting season ever held in Minnesota was remarkable.
During the experimental 2½-day hunt in September 1965, about 55,000 hunters shot 190,000 ducks — including, unfortunately, an estimated 8,000 illegal ducks of different species. The 4 percent violation rate was better than hunters did in some other states, including Iowa (12 percent) and Michigan (7 percent), but worse than in Missouri (2 percent) or Louisiana (2.5 percent).
Nevertheless, the inability of hunters to identify teal — and the political decisions that allowed southern states to continue offering early teal seasons, but not northern states such as Minnesota — set off a controversy that simmers still today.
Northern states have long claimed their hunters have been shortchanged when it comes to hunting teal, early migrants that often leave those states before or shortly after hunting seasons begin.
“For 50 years, we’ve gotten the short end of the stick,’’ said Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources. “In recent years we’ve asked for teal seasons, and the [Fish and Wildlife] Service has said no.’’
But that could change as early as next year.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials have assembled a working group to look at additional teal harvest opportunities in the Central, Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, which could well result in the agency allowing northern states to offer experimental early teal seasons again.
“It’s a big change in our stance,’’ said Jim Kelley, Fish and Wildlife Service representative on the Mississippi Flyway, which includes Minnesota. “No decisions have been made, but conceivably the experiments could be started next fall.’’
Blue-winged and green-winged teal are under-harvested nationwide, officials say. This spring’s continental breeding duck survey showed 3 million green-winged teal, up 50 percent from the long-term average, and 7.7 million blue-winged teal, up 60 percent from the long-term average.
“Harvest rates are low on teal and the continental populations are doing very well,’’ Cordts said.
Kelley said harvest rates of adult male blue-winged teal are around 3 to 4 percent, compared to 11 to 12 percent for adult male mallards.
“Current harvest rates are much lower than what the population could withstand,’’ he said.
Federal officials this year boosted the bag limit for the southern states’ early teal seasons from four to six, and they’ve offered 16-day teal seasons for many years because of the high populations.
“All those southern states [in the Mississippi Flyway] get 16 extra days of hunting, and we get nothing,’’ Cordts said. “We’ve argued we should manage ducks on a flyway scale; if harvest is too high, shorten the season everywhere. That hasn’t happened.’’
The DNR in the 1960s proposed a five-day teal season for the entire flyway, which was rejected.
Cordts said Minnesota always has taken a conservative approach to duck hunting, and he doubts a 16-day teal season would work in Minnesota. But a shorter teal season might, and he said it would help perhaps if hunters were allowed one “mistake’’ duck. But many issues would have to be resolved, including a potential conflict with Youth Waterfowl Day.
Cordts said there are fewer duck hunters now, and less of a concern that they might hurt the state’s breeding teal population during an early hunt. Harvest could be mitigated in a variety of ways, he said.
From the federal standpoint, Kelley said, the primary concern of the early-teal seasons has been the targeting of non-teal ducks.
Politics and ducks
Interestingly, the Fish and Wildlife Service had proposed discontinuing the teal seasons altogether, north and south, because noncompliance occurred in the south, too, during those 1965-1967 experimental teal seasons.
But decades ago “a bio-political decision was made up high to keep the teal season in the southern states, and we’ve had a hard time finding the paper trail of that decision,’’ Kelley said.
Hunters in southern states still accidentally shoot non-teal during those teal seasons, Kelley said.
“That has been a sticking point for northern states, and I don’t blame them,’’ he said. “We’re left with a political artifact that southern states still have a teal season.’’
But he acknowledged it’s unlikely those southern teal seasons will be discontinued, especially given the health of the teal populations. Now the question is whether northern states will join them. The key question, Kelley said, is whether a specific population of ducks — teal — can be isolated and targeted without threatening the population of other species.
Soon states such as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan might get another try to find out.
“To be honest, I’m not sure hunters are any more adept now than they were back then in identifying birds on the wing,’’ Kelley said, “but we’ve agreed to take another look at it.’’