Monday, July 12, 2004
Ducks Numbers Decline: Returning Birds Faced Dry Habitat Conditions
Memphis, July 12, 2004 – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has just released the findings from the 2004 May duck populations and habitat surveys. This data, collected each year with the Canadian Wildlife Service, is the most important annual inventory of the main harvested duck species. It provides the scientific underpinnings for a variety of population management activities that are refined each year by the responsible public agencies throughout North America. Using these numbers and forthcoming data from other surveys, waterfowl managers from federal and state agencies will meet later this summer to determine what kinds of regulations will govern duck hunting across the country this season.
This year, duck populations have declined to 32.2 million birds, 11% below last year’s count, 3% below the long-term average and just above the 31.2 million count of two years ago. Ducks Unlimited’s Executive Vice President, Don Young, points out that “these numbers pretty well reflect feed-back that we have been receiving all spring from our staff stationed across North America’s breeding areas. Extremely dry winter conditions left the soil so parched that almost all of the early spring snowmelt was soaked up and did not run off to fill the basins for the arrival of the birds.”
One of the most important elements in duck-breeding success is the amount of water present on the breeding grounds. When the survey was conducted in May, pond counts had declined by 29% from last year in Prairie Canada and 16% in Prairie U.S.A. The only areas that were an exception to the overall pattern were Southern Manitoba (+10%) and Montana and the Western Dakotas (+25%).
“Moisture conditions have improved markedly since the surveys were conducted, and our research biologists are currently observing a very good late nesting effort on portions of both the U.S. and Canadian prairies,” says Dr. Bruce Batt, DU’s Chief Biologist. “The rainfall is continuing through early July so good wetland conditions should persist through the brood-rearing period. This is a definite plus for the fall flight but, unfortunately, not as beneficial for ducks as moisture that arrives earlier in the year.”
Ducks Unlimited has adopted the goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) as the standard by which to measure the success of waterfowl conservation. Three species are significantly below those goals and remain of special concern for waterfowl managers: scaup (greater and lesser combined), American wigeon, and northern pintail
Scaup remained at almost an identical count to last year at 3.8 million (+2%) But this species is still 39% below the NAWMP goal. Wigeon didn’t fare as well, declining by 22% from last year, and are now 33% below the population goal.
Pintail declined 15% to 2.2 million birds but are still nicely above the 1.8 million counted at their all-time population low of two years ago. “This is likely the result of the greatly improved pintail breeding habitat that we reported during 2003,” says Batt. “This year they were apparently able to hold their own even in the face of the poor, dry habitat that the birds faced on arrival this year.”
Mallard numbers were at 7.4 million birds, down 7% from last year and 9% below the NAWMP goal. At 7.4 million the mallard is at an almost identical level to the population estimate of two years ago.
The remaining species showed mixed results. Gadwall (+2%), and canvasbacks (+11%) showed small increases. Redheads (-5%), northern shovelers (-22%), green-winged teal (-8%), and blue-winged teal (-26%) all showed population declines during the survey.
“These shifts in population estimates for several species relative to 2003 resulted from at least two factors combined,” says Batt. “The late cold spring likely interrupted migration for some species, especially the later nesters, and the dry conditions caused very tentative settling patterns by the early nesting species. This makes it much more difficult than normal to project overall production and the fall flight that will originate from the breeding grounds come September. The improved conditions since the survey assure we’re not dealing with a ‘bust.’ But it won’t be a bumper crop either.”
Don Young reminds us: “Waterfowl managers and hunters have weathered conditions much worse than this many times in the past. Just a few years ago, we enjoyed some of the best fall flights in the last several decades. But now, as we are in a drier period on the breeding areas, waterfowl hunters and managers are facing a different reality. As always, it remains critical to maintain the nesting habitat base, especially our prairie grasslands, through the drier times so we can witness the ‘boom’ that has always recurred with the return of water.”