Someday a book will be written about the decline and fall of ducks and duck hunting. For anyone who cares about these birds, the tome would be grim reading.
Time was in this country when ducks were a management priority for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and for state wildlife agencies. Federal duck harvest and other waterfowl data were processed on time, USFWS special agents ensured that hunting and baiting laws were enforced, and the status of midsummer duck production was determined by surveys.
Additionally, weather variations such as the severe drought now gripping the Dakotas were once considerations in setting seasons, because the potholes and uplands of those states represent the best duck-breeding habitat in the Lower 48.
No so any more: In fact, this fall’s liberal seasons were established by the service last year.
It is true that spring breeding counts in the U.S. and Canada are still conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service and by some states, including Minnesota. But whether those nesting birds produce broods large or small — or any at all — is unknown, because midsummer production counts are no longer conducted.
Maybe it wouldn’t matter anyway. Because in the seemingly never-ending quest by waterfowl managers to keep as many duck hunters as possible in the field, bag limits are kept high and season lengths long — regardless of duck numbers.
In fact, though few duck managers will say so publicly, many now believe, or are tricking themselves into believing, that limits and season lengths for duck hunting serve no purpose, and that perhaps these restrictions should be done away with altogether.
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Minnesota for generations led the country in the number of duck hunters it put in the field. So many ducks were once killed here — because we had a lot of ducks, duck habitat and duck hunters — that waterfowlers elsewhere in the Mississippi Flyway referred to the 12-gauge “Steel Curtain’’ that hunters here metaphorically drew down each fall as we waylaid vast flocks of mallards, teal, wood ducks and ringnecks.
Not so anymore.
Now in autumn, most Minnesotans who still hunt ducks — we’ve lost some 40,000 waterfowlers, more than many states ever had — spend more time reminiscing about the good old days than they do shooting.
But perhaps they shouldn’t worry. After all, the DNR wrote a “Duck Recovery Plan’’ in 2006 (it hasn’t been updated since) that promises more ducks here within … a half-century.
Particularly frustrating during this duck tailspin is the insistence by waterfowl managers that the skies are not devoid of these birds but filled with them.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, record numbers of ducks have procreated in recent springs and winged south en masse in September, October and November.
Most hunters don’t see these multitudinous flocks, despite waterfowl managers’ insistence they exist. Thus a conundrum: Should these waterfowlers believe what they are told, or what they see (or don’t see) for themselves?
Like Chico Marx said to Mrs. Teasdale in “Duck Soup’’: “Who you gonna believe: me or your own eyes?’’
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Here’s a snippet from the article “Mallards in the new millennium,’’ published recently in Ducks Unlimited magazine:
Although the size of the midcontinent mallard stock declined in the early 2000s, it has steadily increased in the last 10 years. However, mallard breeding populations in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, which are part of this stock, have experienced a different trajectory.
Breeding mallards in these Great Lakes states have declined from a high of 1.2 million birds in 2000 to fewer than 700,000 in 2016. Hunters in these three states rely heavily on local mallard production, so this decline is troubling despite the overall growth of the mid-continent population.
And: In Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin … total mallard harvest has fallen 30 percent, which parallels the decline in breeding mallard numbers [in these] states.
Recall that in Minnesota the duck harvest floodgates were opened beginning in 2011, when Tom Landwehr was appointed Department of Natural Resources commissioner. It was then that opening day shooting was moved back to a half-hour before sunrise from 9 a.m.; when the season started opening a week earlier than it traditionally had; when two hen mallards were allowed in daily bags instead of one; and when the wood duck limit was boosted to three from two.
Landwehr’s pro-harvest duck management philosophy is parroted by even more waterfowl managers today.
The gun doesn’t affect duck numbers, they say. So let’s liberalize bag limits and other restrictions to the max in order to retain as many waterfowlers as possible — and retain as well the money they cough up each fall for licenses, stamps and equipment, the latter taxed federally, with proceeds returned to the states to pay the salaries of the same duck managers who make this stuff up.
But, like … where are the ducks?
“I certainly believe mallard numbers are lower,’’ Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist stationed in Bemidji, said last week. “It raises some questions. But I would point less to the gun than perhaps to something more habitat related.’’
Like losing 1 million Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres in Minnesota since 2000? Or the ongoing drought in the Dakotas?
Surely these should be considered when setting bag limits and season lengths?
This spring, total Minnesota duck abundance was down 19 percent from last year, and breeding mallard numbers dipped 15 percent. Yet — another conundrum — 20 percent more wetlands were available this spring than last year, and 55 percent more sheet water (temporary) wetlands, conditions that historically have increased breeding duck numbers.
Todd Arnold is a professor at the U and a smart guy who likes ducks and knows a lot about them.
“There’s no compelling evidence that we’re overharvesting mallards in Minnesota,’’ he said. “We don’t seem to be in any danger zone. The thing to watch most carefully, I think, is the harvest rate on adult females. As long as that stays below 10 percent, and we have decent productivity, the population should be in pretty good shape.’’
So maybe we’re OK.
Maybe, as Modern Duck Management 101 would have us believe, we can in fact shoot our way to having more ducks.
But to paraphrase Chico Marx: Who you gonna believe? Them or your own eyes?