Anderson: One day, the ducks will disappear

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2014 - 11:52 PM

Despite efforts to save wetlands, the duck population in the state has been decreasing steadily for more than 60 years.

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Tabatha, a black Lab, and Indie, a yellow Lab, posed with ducks harvested in Minnesota. A decline in conservation efforts have diminished the duck population in the state, a trend decades in the making.

Photo: File by Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com,

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Tell me again, Grandpa, how duck hunting died in Minnesota.

To answer that, grandson, I have to take you back to about 1950.

It’s now 2025. So 75 years ago?

That’s right. By then, the state’s farmlands had been drained for more than a half-century, starting with horse-drawn ditching machines that were hauled here from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana — states that had already been drained for farming.

What happened to ducks after the drainage began?

They started to dwindle. But back then, in the early 1900s, not many people noticed. Or cared. Making money came first.

Still, the handwriting was on the wall for ducks and other wetland wildlife as early as 1913, when the Pilot newspaper in Lake Wilson, Minn., quoted farmer Charles Swan, saying: “The progressive farmers out there feel that the time has come when they can no longer afford to have a duck and muskrat pond represent a part of their farms when it can and will represent the best paying part.’’

But ducks didn’t disappear that long ago.

No they didn’t. It would take a number of years, during which many Minnesota conservationists put up a valiant fight.

Remember I mentioned the year 1950? That’s about when the Minnesota DNR started its “Save the Wetlands’’ program, forerunner to establishment of the state’s wildlife management areas. At the time, the DNR was led by gutsy conservationists — people who acted first and foremost on behalf of natural resources, regardless of consequences.

Anyway, with only $50,000 — all the money the Legislature would give them — the DNR started “Save the Wetlands.’’ In many respects, the program was very successful. But wetland and wetland wildlife losses continued. Cerro Gordo Township in Lac qui Parle County, for instance, had 1,668 acres of wetlands in 1954, 627 acres in 1962 and fewer than 400 in 1972.

Today, of course, there are fewer still, and those that remain are often dirty and given to huge water-level fluctuations. Consequently much of the freshwater shrimp, sago, wild celery, wild rice and other foods ducks and other wildlife need to survive have disappeared.

Also flooding has increased because of a lack of wetlands, and for the same reason our groundwater is increasingly contaminated.

Yet in many ways the 1950s through the early 1990s were a high point of Minnesota resource management because strong-willed conservationists led the DNR, guys like Dick Dorer and Dave Vesall, among others.

They in turn tutored protégés such as Roger Holmes and Joe Alexander. Heck, Alexander once told a group of influential farmers in Gov. Al Quie’s office that they weren’t draining wetlands on their properties — no matter who they knew in high places.

Wasn’t Mr. Alexander afraid of getting fired?

His job was to protect the resource, and that’s what he did.

So in the end, what was the final nail in the coffin of duck hunting in Minnesota?

Drainage had an impact, of course. Other important habitat was lost, too, including grasslands and native prairies — landscapes we never recovered in sufficient number or size.

An indifferent citizenry was to blame for much of this, as was ineffective conservation leadership. Long gone were the DNR conservation hardliners of old.

Anyway, little by little, Minnesota hunters gave up on ducks. Or they hunted them in other states.

Then things got really weird. With habitat fast disappearing, the DNR, rather than promoting conservation to the public at large, and instead of establishing more refuges to hold ducks in the state longer, or limiting the hours hunters could shoot to give ducks a place to rest — instead the DNR expanded hunting opportunities.

Think about it: Minnesota had an early goose season, beginning Sept. 1. Then Youth Waterfowl, followed by the regular duck opener. All in the first three weeks or so of September.

I thought northern states were supposed to protect their breeding duck populations, not shoot them disproportionately on their home waters.

You’re thinking old school, grandson. By 2014, the DNR had decided to sustain duck hunting — and sell licenses — by putting as many guns in the field as early in the season as possible, to increase the kill.

But the last straw for duck hunting in Minnesota?

That would be the seven-day September teal season the DNR initiated in 2014 in which one “mistake’’ duck — you know, a hen mallard — could be killed.

It all worked. For a while. Then, about five years ago, in 2020, there were no more ducks in the state, in September or any other time, just a remnant population here and there.

And that’s how duck hunting died in Minnesota.

 

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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