North Dakota wildlife officials have completed their spring breeding duck counts and the news is good: Ducks there are up 18 percent from last year and 87 percent from the long term average.

The reason: Water.

Good amounts of rain last fall followed by heavy winter snows set North Dakota (and South Dakota) up for significant snowmelt filling ponds and field depressions.

The result: Ducks that might otherwise have overflown the state to attempt nesting in prairie Canada instead stopped in North Dakota.

Here's the complete North Dakota report:

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department's annual spring breeding duck survey showed an index of more than 4 million birds, an increase of 18 percent from last year and 87 percent above the long-term average (1948-2008). The 2009 index is the eighth highest on record.

Pintail (up 157 percent and the highest since 1972) and northern shovelers (up 102 percent and the highest on record) showed significant increases. All other dabbling ducks except for gadwall (-42 percent) showed increases from last year (blue-winged teal, +53 percent; mallards, +43 percent; wigeon, +44 percent; and green-winged teal, +14 percent).

All diving ducks except canvasback (+96 percent) decreased from last year (scaup, -60 percent; redhead, -16 percent; and ruddy ducks, -10 percent). However, all species were well-above the long-term average.

The spring water index showed the largest single-year turnaround in the 62-year history of the survey, according to Mike Johnson, game management section leader. The index was up 293 percent from 2008 and 69 percent above the long-term average. It was the eighth highest in survey history and the highest since 1999.

Johnson cautions that the water index is based on basins with water, and does not necessarily represent the amount of water contained in wetlands. "Water conditions were generally lower than we had expected, given the exceptional snow conditions this past winter," Johnson added. "However, the spring was fairly dry, and considerable drying had occurred in wetland basins between the snow melt and the time of the survey."

Additional reports indicate that much of the Prairie Pothole Region from South Dakota, Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba is experiencing significantly improved water conditions due to late winter/early spring precipitation. "Thus ducks have a much larger landscape providing good water conditions than in recent years," Johnson said.

However, nesting cover in North Dakota continues to decline. Since the beginning of 2007 North Dakota has lost more than 500,000 Conservation Reserve Program acres, and projections for the next two years indicate up to another 500,000 acres could be converted to cropland.

"This loss of one-third of our critical nesting cover will be disastrous for breeding ducks and hunting opportunities in North Dakota," Johnson said.

The July brood survey will provide a better idea of duck production and insight into what to expect this fall. Observations to date indicate that production will be improved across the state due to improved water conditions and increased wetland availability for brood production.

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