Dennis Anderson: Is the sky the limit with ducks?

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 16, 2012 - 3:21 AM

The idea to control duck populations with hunting restrictions is shifting with the understanding that habitat and water are much bigger factors.

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Some biologists advocate loosening — or losing — duck limits, as they don’t seem to affect numbers much.

Photo: Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune

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Duck limits: What if they didn't matter?

What if you and I and all of our buddies -- everyone -- could shoot all we wanted ... and it wouldn't make an iota of difference to ducks?

Some waterfowl biologists are beginning to think that way.

Sort of.

"In this day and age, the duck possession limit, at least, is an anachronism,'' said Dave Ankney, a lifelong waterfowler and professor emeritus of zoology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario. "To have a possession limit of only 12 ducks is absurd.

"It's not doing anything positive for ducks. But it is doing something negative for duck hunting.''

Ankney hunts in Canada in the fall and in Texas in the later season. He says when waterfowl possession limits were established decades ago to equal twice the daily limit, the daily limit was 50.

Which translated into a possession limit of 100.

But with daily limits today of only six, keeping possession limits at twice that amount makes no sense, particularly when so many waterfowlers these days travel great distances to hunt for a week at a time and are hamstrung by the number of birds they can keep.

Canadian waterfowl managers already have loosened duck possession limits, allowing hunters to keep three daily limits instead of two -- a relative boatload of birds, considering the daily duck limit across most of Canada is eight.

Now some of the same Canadian waterfowl experts reportedly are considering the end of duck possession limits altogether, or at least liberalizing them considerably. They reason that so relatively few people hunt in Canada anymore that duck populations can't be affected, regardless the possession limit.

Maybe not.

But issues underpinning waterfowl hunting regulations, particularly those affecting ducks, are complex. Unlike virtually all other wildlife, waterfowl are a shared resource, state to state and nation to nation. Their management is significantly controlled by the Migratory Bird Treaty, which ties Canada, the United States and Mexico to common hunting principles.

In the United States, the four flyways established to manage ducks and geese -- Atlantic, Mississippi (which includes Minnesota and Wisconsin), Central (the Dakotas) and Pacific -- were developed in recognition that provinces and states in the north must regulate waterfowl in concert with states in the midlatitudes and south to ensure that everyone gets a fair shot at migrating birds.

Yet increasingly, biologists believe that habitat quality and water availability govern the size of the following year's duck breeding populations far more than hunting regulations.

Example:

For the past decade and a half, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has managed duck seasons under its "liberal'' regulatory scheme, meaning hunting is allowed for 60 days (more in some states), with six-bird daily limits (also more in some states).

Arguably in some years during that period, limits and season lengths could have been reduced, and perhaps should have been, given that certain species saw population downfalls.

But in retrospect, to what end? In the past decade and a half, during "liberal'' regulations, some duck populations have risen and fallen seemingly regardless of the liberal framework.

"When possession limits were first established, part of the reason was to catch commercial hunters,'' Ankney said. "If they couldn't catch them over-shooting ducks in the marsh, they could catch them in their homes or businesses with stockpiles of ducks. Obviously, today, there are no commercial duck hunters.''

Hold your fire

But limits are not only about ducks. They also reflect human values, however intangible.

What, after all, is a "moral'' limit? A "sportsman's'' limit?

"How many ducks can one person or one family eat in a year?'' asked Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr, a longtime duck hunter. "I tell my kids we eat what we shoot. To shoot ducks and give them away to other people is legal, and some hunters do it. But it crosses my ethical line.''

Landwehr notes that in areas where hunting pressure is intense, duck numbers can be adversely affected, particularly in a duck-breeding state such as Minnesota, which depends on a significant portion of its waterfowl to return in spring to maintain relative population stability.

Still, Minnesota and many other states have fewer duck hunters now than in the past -- in Minnesota's case, about 50 percent fewer, from about 150,000 to about 75,000.

So hunters today collectively harvest far fewer birds than they once did, because fewer guns go afield.

Steve Cordts is the DNR's duck management specialist.

"In the 1970s and at other times in the past, waterfowl managers believed they could affect the following spring's returning breeding duck numbers by making minor changes in the fall hunting regulations,'' Cordts said.

"That thinking has changed now. Yes, we can 'manage harvest' with hunting regulations. But to have any significant effect on harvest, we'd have to take big steps, say down to 30 days and three ducks daily. We don't see a reason to do that. Plus, it would cost us a bunch of hunters who would leave the sport.''

Landwehr says states should perhaps fix daily duck limits at, say, five, like pheasant and grouse limits are fixed, for example.

Consideration should also be given to removing species restrictions, Ankney says, to be replaced, perhaps, with a limit of "four splashes and you're done'' regardless of species in the bag, or their gender.

"It's crazy, all these restrictions on different species,'' Ankney said. "For the average guy, or a kid, or someone just starting to duck hunt, figuring all of this out is a headache -- two of this and one of that.

"Are there duck species that might need special protection? Maybe canvasbacks. But even those have bounced back after they've been down.

"I would say let's try some of these changes. These regulations are costing us hunters, and they're not helping ducks.

"It's not regulations that dictate duck numbers, after all. It's weather and water.''

Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com

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