This year — as in decades past — dates, season length and bag limits of Minnesota’s waterfowl season were announced just weeks before the season was set to open.
That’s because federal officials don’t set the regulations until after a complex process that involves spring duck surveys, assessment of last fall’s harvest data, numerous meetings with state officials and publishing of the final regulations in the Federal Register.
“That’s how we’ve done business for 50 years,” said Steve Cordts, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist.
Now, in a major shift, federal officials are changing the process and will set waterfowl seasons nationwide a year in advance … which means details of Minnesota’s 2016 season will be decided and posted online by spring.
Instead of waiting for results of this fall’s harvest and next May’s continental breeding duck survey to set the 2016 regulations, federal officials will use the 2015 survey and last year’s harvest results.
“We’re essentially using last year’s information,” said Cordts.
In 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service did an environmental-impact statement, which concluded using year-old data won’t harm the waterfowl population, Cordts said.
“There’s very little risk. If a breeding duck population drops a bunch, that will result in a restricted season the following year,” he said. “Canada has been doing this for decades.”
Said Jim Kelley, Mississippi Flyway representative for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: “We think we’ll be able to account for any impacts to duck populations fairly quickly. We think [the new system] will be sensitive enough to safeguard populations. And we still have the emergency ability to change a season if dire events occur.”
Officials from some states were concerned that the new system might result in more conservative duck seasons, Kelley said. “The bottom line is we don’t think it will have an impact on the frequency of liberal seasons.”
The Fish and Wildlife Service says the change will give biologists more time to analyze bird survey data, will give the public more time to weigh in on proposed regulations and will ensure that administrative procedures don’t delay opening of hunting seasons.
For those who like to plan their hunting trips or vacations months in advance, the change will be helpful, Kelley said. “We think it will be better in the long run,” he said.
Paul Schmidt, Ducks Unlimited chief conservation officer, said the conservation group has no major concerns with the new process, as long as the spring duck survey and harvest information continue.
“I’m not concerned at all from a scientific perspective, as long as we’re diligent in collecting that data,” he said. Schmidt said he believes the Fish and Wildlife Service will be able to react, if necessary, to changing duck populations or habitat.
“We are OK with it,” Schmidt said.
But some question whether the change will benefit ducks.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve heard in my life,” said Jim Cox of Cologne, a former member of the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council and former president of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. “It makes no sense at all. Why even do the yearly counts?”
Added Cox: “I’m concerned the Fish and Wildlife Service is losing all credibility in how it counts ducks and uses that information, and I think they’re losing the confidence of duck hunters.”
Dave Zentner of Duluth, who headed Capitol duck rallies and is a member of the Concerned Duck Hunters Group, which believes the regulations now are too liberal, also is skeptical.
“It sounds like convenience for the bureaucracy,” he said.
Kelley said the change is being done mostly for administrative reasons. The legal requirements for setting migratory bird hunting seasons are complex.
“We’ve always gone down to the wire to get documents published in time so seasons can be opened,” he said. “Sometimes those documents haven’t been published until the day before a season opened. That’s just not a tenable framework to keep in place. Some year a delay will occur, and it would be a nightmare if we couldn’t get the documents published in time.”
When the waterfowl season framework was moved up a week in 2002, allowing duck seasons to open on the Saturday nearest Sept. 24 instead of the Saturday nearest Oct. 1, that added to the deadline pressure, Kelley said.
Meanwhile, because officials will be looking at last May’s breeding duck survey — which showed a record number of ducks — to set the 2016 regulations, next year’s season almost certainly will be the 20th consecutive “liberal” season, meaning a 60-day, six-duck bag limit.
The Fish and Wildlife Service will publish the 2016 season framework in December to allow for a 30-day comment period. The final framework will be published in late February, and states will have until April 30 to select their season regulations.
Cordts said that although Minnesota now could publish its waterfowl regulations in the regular hunting regulations booklet, the DNR is likely to continue to publish a separate waterfowl regulations booklet.