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Duck Numbers Rising

By: Steve Wright -

Mike Checkett usually errs on the side of caution when it comes to forecasting duck season. But even the Ducks Unlimited senior communications specialist can’t help but be optimistic after looking at the May results of the waterfowl breeding population and habitat survey.

“It’s hard not to be excited about what could happen this fall,” Checkett said. “I’m really not one to go far out on a limb, but I’m pretty confident about this fall. We should enjoy this season. The next time it rains this much, we may not see the reproduction ability like this to set the table for waterfowl.”

Some have called it “the perfect storm” for waterfowl: a combination of abundant rainfall and snowmelt in the prairie pothole region of the U.S. and Canada, plus ample grasslands to ensure successful nesting and re-nesting for waterfowl. Late summer and early fall weather conditions could still negatively impact the annual waterfowl migration. But most of that hay is in the barn, so to speak. And it should make for a bountiful waterfowl hunting season in the U.S.

Consider some of these numbers, compiled during the annual May gathering of data in the Waterfowl Breeding Population & Habitat Survey in a joint effort by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service:

  • A total waterfowl estimate of 45.6 million, up 11 percent over 2010. It’s the highest number since the survey began in 1955 and only the fifth time in that period that the population has exceeded 40 million.
  • Mallard numbers are up to 9.2 million, only the second time in the history of the survey that mallards have been over 8 million.
  • Bluewing teal and northern shovelers have reached record highs (8.9 million and 4.6 million, respectively) and northern pintail numbers topped 4 million for the first time since 1980.
  • The number of ponds counted in the 2 million-acre survey area was 8.1 million, marking only the second time since 1955 that the pond count had topped 8 million.

With those facts in mind, you can see why an avid duck hunter and waterfowl conservationist, like Checkett, might feel like a kid on Christmas Eve.

“This is pretty much unprecedented,” Checkett said.

It’s not the upcoming duck season that has Checkett worried, it’s the ones that follow it. Federal budget cutting talks are dominating the news these days as Congress and President Barack Obama try to reach an agreement on extending the U.S. debt ceiling. Reduced budgets in federal conservation programs are already having an effect on crucial grassland breeding areas in the U.S. and Canada.

For instance, with commodity prices increasing and funds for Conservation Reserve Program acreage decreasing, there has already been a significant loss of grassland acreage that is necessary for waterfowl reproduction.

“Since 2007, North Dakota alone has lost 22 percent of its CRP acres,” Checkett said. “We expect another 387,000 acres to be lost this year. Another million acres will be gone in 2012-2013. You can’t lose grasslands in that amount without it starting to effect reproduction.”

Checkett urged all conservationists and especially waterfowl hunters to communicate with their congressional delegates to let them know what the priorities should and should not be when it comes to cutting the federal budget.

“With the budget woes we have, naturally we need to make cutbacks,” Checkett said.  “But some of these programs are crucial to a healthy environment and, as a result, continued success in the waterfowl breeding areas.”

Checkett recommends a two-pronged approach: 1) Enjoy what promises to be the best waterfowl hunting season in decades, and 2) voice your opinion so this season isn’t the last of its kind in your lifetime.

All it would take would be another “perfect storm” in the negative sense – a dry season in the prairie pothole region and a significant decrease in grassland nesting areas – for this season to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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