Delta Waterfowl Comments on Computer Models

January 9, 2009 by  

Note to Waterfowl Managers: Computer models can’t evaluate the impact of your actions on the waterfowling culture
by Dan Nelson – Delta Magazine Editor

My passion for hunting was fired by the outdoor writers of another time, men with made-up-sounding names like Ted Trueblood, Nash Buckingham, Gordon MacQuarrie, Gene Hill and Grits Gresham. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.

delta waterfowlTheir stories were a celebration of wild places and wild things, of spirited dogs, fine guns, aged brandy and the camaraderie of the hunt.  They elevated outdoor writing to an art, and we couldn’t get enough of them.

To this day I can’t read MacQuarrie’s Stories of the Old Duck Hunters without wishing I could have “courted bluebills in the snow” with the author and the protagonist of his essays, the incorrigible president of the Old Duck Hunters Association.

Wildlife artists can fan a hunter’s enthusiasm too, and none did it better than Les Kouba, whose admitted “long suit” was the “zig-zagging dance” of incoming bluebills.   The scaup in Kouba’s paintings danced through wind, fog, sleet and snow, and into the living rooms of waterfowlers everywhere.

MacQuarrie and Kouba didn’t invent scaup hunting, but their words and pictures shaped and defined the culture for generations to come.   For hunters in Kouba’s Minnesota, MacQuarrie’s Wisconsin, and some other places as well, chasing bluebills on those “bitter last days” was the essence of waterfowling.

Today that culture is in jeopardy.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently decided to reduce the scaup limit for the flyway.  That decision could cost the species its strongest constituency, the small cadre of devotees likely to hunt something else—or worse yet, quit altogether—rather than subject themselves to the rigors of ‘bill hunting for a single duck.

Those hard-core scaup hunters are the only ones with a vested interest in doing whatever it takes to restore the population to its once-glorious levels.  There are plenty of scaup to keep bird-lovers happy—with a breeding population of 3.7 million, it’s the third-most abundant duck species—and besides, bird-lovers don’t contribute much to conservation anyway.

Cutting the limits on a lightly harvested duck jeopardizes the support of scaup aficionados, and without them the research necessary to get the job done will likely go unfunded.  In other words, the remedy is worse than the illness.

Last February Delta scientific director Dr. Frank Rohwer convened a panel of scientists in Minneapolis to examine the Service’s scaup harvest strategy, and those experts concluded that harvest poses no threat to scaup populations.  The model that inspired the Service’s strategy, the experts concluded, should be tweaked.

The Service ignored that recommendation, prompting letters of protest from wildlife officials in Minnesota and Wisconsin.  In late August Service director Dale Hall attended a conference in Minneapolis that attracted 200 waterfowl scientists and managers from across the U.S. and Canada.  Shortly after, the Service announced its decision would stand.

This isn’t a criticism of the Fish and Wildlife Service as much as a warning that to lose sight of waterfowling’s unique culture is risky business.  The capable scientists at Fish and Wildlife are doing what they believe is best for the resource, but we’d remind them that computer models can’t evaluate the impact of their actions on hunting’s culture, hunting participation and ultimately on support for hunting itself.

We need only to look at Canada to see what happens to waterfowl conservation when hunter numbers decline, and we need only to look at the scaup issue in the U.S. to gauge the importance of having a passionate and engaged hunting public.

It’s no coincidence the Minnesota and Wisconsin DNRs were at the forefront of the scaup controversy in the U.S., or that most of the media outrage over this story emanated from the Twin Cities.  A lot of hunters don’t care a whit about scaup, but hunters in those states do, and that’s why wildlife officials and outdoor reporters there are fighting back.

The waterfowl manager’s first responsibility is to the resource, but they also have a responsibility to defend the hunting culture.  If harvest threatened scaup populations, Delta would support reduced limits or even closed seasons without hesitation.  But we believe there are other factors at play, and discouraging scaup hunters will only silence the species’ strongest voice and impede the search for the real culprits.

Gordon MacQuarrie, Les Kouba and dozens of other writers and artists spanning the decades did their part by helping to create that culture.

It’s up to the rest of us to hold it together.

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