Duck hunters and others who care about mallards, teal, wood ducks and other fowl, and who have long suspected a disconnect between duck managers and the real world, were boosted in their beliefs recently when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued its annual waterfowl population status report.
Those who pay attention to these matters will recall that in August each year the FWS issues volumes of waterfowl data based largely on springtime overflights of key North American duck and goose breeding areas by pilot-and-spotter teams. Waterfowl-counting ground crews supplement the aerial survey.
In years past, the service also conducted midsummer production surveys to assess the success (or not) of ducks in bringing off broods. This was considered important because weather and, therefore, nesting conditions are highly variable, and that variability — such as the receipt of heavy rains or the onset of drought — can affect waterfowl production and migration.
The service no longer conducts these surveys, citing labor costs among their reasons.
Here in two paragraphs is the FWS summary of 2017 North American breeding duck population and spring habitat conditions issued Aug. 15:
“In the traditional survey area, the total duck population estimate was 47.3 million birds. This estimate was similar to the 2016 estimate of 48.4 million and 34 percent higher than the long-term average (1955-2016). In the eastern Dakotas, total duck numbers were similar to the 2016 estimate but 32 percent above the long-term average.
“The U.S. prairies experienced average to above-average precipitation, but conditions there were more variable. Habitat conditions were generally better in the more northern portions of the U.S. prairies, mainly due to a better frost seal. The total pond estimate (prairie Canada and U.S. combined) was 6.1 million, 22 percent above the 2016 estimate and 17 percent higher than the long-term average. The pond estimate for the north-central U.S. was 1.8 million, 16 percent above the 2016 estimate and similar to the long-term average.”
For those keeping score, the 47.3 million ducks the service reported counting this spring is only a shade off the all-time high mark of 49.52 million ducks recorded in 2015, up a sliver from 2014’s then-record 49.2 million.
Let’s assume for the moment the validity of the service’s numbers — however difficult that assumption is to make for some hunters, especially Minnesota’s, who, according to the service, killed 521,000 ducks last year, down from 573,400 in 2016. That is despite hunter numbers increasing from 57,100 to 60,600.
Let’s assume also the FWS isn’t part of a duck-hunting cabal that counts among its primary interests spinning its survey and other data in ways that maximize hunter interest and participation, without which, the service might argue, duck management will disappear altogether, its funding evaporated.
But even with those assumptions made, how can the lack of tempering information in the service’s status report be explained?
Every duck hunter worth his or her waders, for instance, knows that each spring about half of all North American ducks — more than 22 million birds — return to the continent’s prairie pothole region, ground zero of which in the United States is North Dakota, with South Dakota, eastern Montana and prairie Canada rounding out the hotbed.
Yet the duck production capabilities of these areas are being transformed almost in real time. Between 1987 and 2016, U.S. total corn production rose from 7.1 billion bushels to 14.54 billion bushels, and a significant portion of the increase was due to corn produced for ethanol, which rose from about 300 million bushels in 1987 to 5.3 billion bushels in 2016.
Increased acres for corn means fewer acres for the grasslands ducks and other birds need to propagate. More than 2,000 square miles of grasslands were cleared for corn and soybeans between 2006 and 2011 alone in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Iowa.
One study found that in counties with significant increases in corn acres, grassland bird numbers fell 30 percent.
Yet according to the FWS — hold onto your hats here — duck numbers rose from about 40 million in 1955 — when North America’s best waterfowl breeding grounds were a patchwork of small farms interspersed with relatively vast acreages of wetlands and grasslands — to 47.3 million ducks today.
But even assuming those numbers are valid, FWS officials apparently were somehow oblivious this summer to one of the worst droughts in history gripping the Dakotas and eastern Montana — conditions that likely will significantly affect duck production and migration — because reports of these dry conditions weren’t included in the service’s Aug. 15 news release announcing its survey results.
Apparently, most everyone but professional duck managers saw headlines like these earlier this summer:
• Drought in North, South Dakota causing worst conditions in decades, farmers say. — Associated Press, July 16.
• Exceptional drought conditions have returned to parts of North Dakota and Montana for the first time in more than a decade. Exceptional drought is the worst category on the U.S. Drought Monitor. — Weather.com. July 20.
Perhaps, as some believe, the service’s intent each year is to issue its status report with a sort of smiley face, knowing that nearly all reporting on it nationwide is a simple regurgitation of its first few paragraphs, e.g.:
• “2017 Duck numbers released, population remains high.” Sportsman Channel online.
• “Duck numbers remain high.” Texasalloutdoors.com.
• “Duck populations remain high for 2017.” Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.
A retired waterfowl manager recently lamented that “duck scientists that question the current system are typically shunned, ignored and not professionally considered.”
To which duck hunters in Minnesota, among other regions of the U.S., would say: Welcome to the club.