Everything you need to know about Minnesota waterfowl management these days is contained in the booklet of rules and regulations the Department of Natural Resources issues to duck and goose hunters.
Opening day shooting on Saturday morning, the pamphlet says, will begin not at noon or even 9 a.m. as in the recent past but a half-hour before sunrise, with a daily limit of six — 18 if you hunt through Monday. And don’t forget: The wood duck limit is three, not two, as it was not long ago. And get this: You can even kill two hen mallards. Six if you stay a couple extra days!
Basically, as the DNR booklet instructs, if it’s mid-September or thereabouts in Minnesota, it must be time to shoot whatever you see, duck-wise. Or, as is more likely the case in the half-light Saturday morning, what you can’t see.
Under DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr and his deputy, Dave Schad, duck management was supposed to be different. Or so some of us thought. After all, Landwehr is a wildlife professional and a former Ducks Unlimited staffer. Ducks were said to be his wildlife species of choice, as they are of his hunting partner, Schad.
So surely, the thinking went — especially now, during the greatest U.S. farmland conversion since the tractor replaced the horse — these two guys would stand tall and very publicly against the onslaught of degradation that has overwhelmed Minnesota wetlands and wetland wildlife, not least ducks.
And just as surely, it was thought, they would continue Minnesota’s grand tradition of protecting its breeding ducks to keep them in the state longer and, not incidentally, to ensure they are not killed disproportionately on their home waters, before they disperse down the Mississippi Flyway.
This valiant struggle, we figured, Landwehr would enjoin because ducks represent Minnesota’s grand natural treasure, and for generations, no state boasted more duck hunters, raised more money for these birds or spawned more celebrated artists who drew inspiration from their winged flights.
Given this legacy, the last thing Landwehr and Schad would do, surely, is pander to the minority of the state’s fast-diminishing waterfowlers who think these birds somehow magically appear from beneath corn stalks or soybean plants, plentiful as each is in the state, or that the supply of ducks is endless.
Guess again. About Landwehr — and about ducks, the latter of which, as it turns out, are very limited indeed.
Doubt that? Wait a few years to see the folly of the DNR’s novel attempt to shoot our way to more ducks. It’s then that the chickens of this loopy scheme will come home to roost.
But the ducks won’t.
Were they aware of these shenanigans, the Old Guard, now passed on, would die anew.
Al Hochbaum, who in 1938 was recommended by Aldo Leopold and selected by James Ford Bell to found a waterfowl research facility on Delta Marsh, Manitoba, was among the first to advocate for small wetlands — which today are almost an endangered species in Minnesota, thanks to farmland pattern tiling — recognizing their critical importance to ducks.
Hochbaum also railed against duck shooting too early in autumn, knowing its effects on brood stock. “Research,’’ Hochbaum often said in his continual support of what was best for birds, “is the search for the truth, and management is the application of truth.’’
From this thinking, multiple generations of Minnesota duck managers were groomed, among them the late Art Hawkins, Joe Alexander and Roger Holmes. And like Landwehr, they were tempted many times to tweak waterfowl regulations or disregard wetland protection, at the possible expense of ducks. But they stood fast.
In counterpoint, Landwehr and his lieutenants argue that their liberalized waterfowl regulations are offset by the fewer number of hunters who go afield nowadays, adding that, well, hunters with heftier bags might just stay in the game longer, buying licenses and supporting waterfowl management. So, everyone’s happy.
But even if Minnesota could put enough ducks over hunters’ blinds to support this shell game — which it can’t — do we need to kill every duck that’s biologically expendable?
Better that the DNR worry less about limits and shooting times and more about encouraging a sustainable breed of waterfowlers whose kicks come from the overall experience, and less so the squeezing of a trigger.
Better still, the agency should more publicly spearhead the state’s charge in defense of its natural heritage, of which ducks and their habitats are the cornerstone.