Duck hunting harvest was poor
Doug Smith Star Tribune Staff Writer
July 17, 2005 DOUG0717
Many Minnesota duck hunters claimed last season was a dud.
They were right.
Minnesota waterfowlers killed 683,600 ducks last fall, a decline of nearly 201,000 or about 23 percent from the 884,500 shot in 2003, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service harvest survey.
The biggest decline was in the harvest of mallards, still the No. 1 duck in the bag. Hunters killed about 179,000, down a whopping 41 percent from the 304,000 mallards shot in 2003.
In fact, for only the second time in history, Minnesota hunters shot more Canada geese (234,000) than mallards.
Hunters averaged 7.6 ducks for the season, down from 10.1 ducks per season the previous year.
"That's a big drop," said Steve Cordts, state Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist. "For a lot of hunters, it was a very poor season."
The lower harvest occurred despite greater effort by hunters.
Hunter numbers increased by about 2,000 -- from 87,900 in 2003 to 89,600 last year. And those hunters spent nearly 596,000 days afield, compared to 548,000 days the year before.
There were some bright spots: Hunters shot about 128,000 wood ducks, the No. 2 duck in the bag, which was similar to the 2003 harvest. And they killed 106,000 blue-winged teal, a 13 percent increase.
But the green-winged teal harvest fell by 55 percent -- from 101,000 to 45,000. And the scaup (bluebill) harvest fell nearly 56 percent to just 15,000 -- an all-time low -- underscoring a continuing continentwide population decline.
Federal spring breeding counts for scaup estimated their numbers at 3.4 million -- a record low and 35 percent below their long-term average. Wildlife biologists still are trying to determine the cause of the decline.
The federal harvest numbers come from a national survey of waterfowl hunters under the Harvest Information Program (HIP.) About 70,000 hunters were surveyed, including about 2,000 in Minnesota. The Minnesota DNR also surveys hunters, but those figures haven't been released yet. Cordts said he expects they will mirror the national figures.
Steve Wilds, regional migratory bird chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the federal numbers appear to support the bleak reports from many duck hunters last season.
In Louisiana, where hunters also claimed a poor season, harvest fell from 1.3 million ducks in 2003 to 822,000 last year - a drop of 478,000. (Louisiana hunters have disputed the 1.3 million duck harvest estimate, saying it was too high.)
"It seems to say we didn't have the ducks," Wilds said. "Maybe it's not as bad as some people said, but there were pretty significant drops in both states."
Added Wilds: "We didn't expect to have a great season, but it was maybe a little worse than we expected."
Duck harvest in the entire Mississippi Flyway fell from 6.5 million in 2003 to 5.5 million last year.
Cordts said a lack of good duck hunting weather, including cold fronts to push migrating birds into the state from Canada, likely hurt Minnesota hunters.
Though Wilds acknowledged duck hunting probably wasn't great in Minnesota and some other states, part of the problem for hunters is one of expectations. Under the Adaptive Harvest Management utilized by the agency to manage ducks, liberal six-bird and 60-day seasons have been offered since 1997.
"The perception is that because we have liberal regulations, we have lots of ducks," Wilds said. "The reality is just because you have liberal regulations, it doesn't mean you're going to have a great season, but it also doesn't mean you're going to devastate the duck population either."
Some hunters believe that by reducing the bag limits or length of the season, it will boost duck numbers, and both Wilds and Cordts said that's not the case. Fluctuating habitat conditions affect duck populations far more than hunting regulations, Cordts said.
As for this fall's regulations, the Mississippi Flyway Council meets this week in Mississippi, and the Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to announce its waterfowl regulation framework later this month.
With Minnesota breeding duck numbers down 37 percent from last year -- and state mallard numbers down 36 percent -- Cordts said hunters may see a duck season similar to last year's. But the state's mallard population remains near long-term averages, so Cordts said he's not worried about the health of the population.
Poor weather during this year's spring aerial duck survey meant that many flights occurred after some birds migrated through the state, resulting in fewer ducks showing up in the survey, Cordts said.
Rains have filled up many wetlands in Canada and parts of the Dakotas and Minnesota since the federal and state spring breeding surveys were conducted, so duck production also could be better than had been anticipated.
"I don't expect it to be a super year, but if we have pretty good production, it should be somewhere near an average duck season," Cordts said. He expects a duck harvest similar to last year's.
Meanwhile, Minnesota's Canada goose harvest declined by about 17 percent, from 282,000 in 2003 to 234,000 last year -- still No. 1 in the nation. Slightly more restrictive goose hunting regulations may be at least partially responsible for the decline, Cordts said.