2005 Duck Factory outlook still cloudy
Thursday, June 30, 2005 9:37 AM EDT
By Tim Eisele Contributing Writer
Madison, Wis. -- The jury is still out on what duck production numbers will mean for the 2005 hunting season.
At the Outdoor Writers Association of America annual convention held in Madison, June 18-21, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service gave a briefing on preliminary breeding conditions, but shed little light on pond conditions and duck numbers so far this year. That's because biologists are still summarizing survey data collected in May.
Dr. Bob Blohm, chief of surveys in the USFWS Migratory Bird Management office in Arlington, Va., said there were some bright spots in some areas, while other nesting grounds are dry.
"We won't have the numbers until early July," he said. "Some of the conditions (observed) were pretty dry when the observers were up on the breeding ground survey, but things have changed a bit since then with some rainfall."
The briefing OWAA members receive in mid-June always takes place while the USFWS is crunching the numbers from the May surveys. That leaves migratory bird officials with little hard information to present.
Last year, reporters heard a gloomy forecast in June, but between the time the USFWS presented its pessimistic report and the time liberal season recommendations came out, rainfall improved breeding conditions.
"Nesting is well under way and I am optimistic because there should be good brood water," Blohm said. "In the past, some of the brood water has disappeared and then the nesting effort goes for naught."
Blohm did offer some first reports from the nesting grounds.
The Dakotas: Early conditions were very dry. October and November were quite mild in both North Dakota and South Dakota, with only small amounts of rain and less than average snowfall during the winter. Some sloughs that have not been dry since the last drought in 1993 were dry this spring.
One of the biologists who surveys the Dakotas noted that the 1988 to 1993 period was very dry, and conditions in South Dakota this spring were similar to that drought period.
Blohm said conditions have improved recently in the Dakotas since the early spring, so the outlook may not be so bleak. The Dakotas received a lot of rain in late May and early June.
Saskatchewan: Precipitation through fall 2004 increased, combined with above-average snowfall during the winter. Warm spring temperatures caused the snow melt to run into the wetlands, rather than being absorbed into the ground. In southern Manitoba and southeast Saskatchewan there has been an increase in wetlands.
Southern Saskatchewan received a lot of snow and water conditions look pretty good, leading to an expectation for at least average production in the grasslands.
In the northern aspen parklands, the area between the grasslands on the south and boreal forest on the north, habitat has improved significantly. This is due to a wet May in 2004, and an extremely wet fall. Biologists said that during ground surveys they saw twice the number of nests as the year before.
Alberta: The prairies were in very poor shape, although major rains fell the first week in June. Conditions are better in the north.
"The fact that it is still raining bodes well for brood water," Blohm said. "What we need for waterfowl production is a string of good years. You can have good events in some years followed by dry years, but when you can string good years together, you see populations recover."
Odds and ends
Blohm said nesting conditions in Alaska began with an early break in spring, which is good for waterfowl production.
The USFWS had no updates on the canvasback population, but expects no major changes. The population must meet a minimum goal for a hunting season to be opened. In recent years the canvasback population has been just above goals.
One situation vexes hunters: they complain they aren't seeing many ducks, but surveys show enough ducks and potholes to justify liberal hunting season frameworks.
"We are trying to find out what the factors are in terms of matching hunters' expectations with the migration chronology of the birds as they come from the breeding grounds," Blohm said.
Things like the weather, food distribution, hunting pressure, and changes in duck numbers are all factors that may play a part.
"We're all trying to figure out how these factors figure in," Blohm said. "A big factor is what really do hunters want and what are their expectations during the hunting season? We're all cognizant of the concerns of the hunting public, and are trying to answer those questions and figure out what happens during the migration."
Blohm noted that ducks are not "dumb critters," and react to gunning pressure and may change their patterns.
The Arkansas Fish and Game Department has put radios on mallards to determine exactly where those birds are when migrating between nesting and wintering grounds. This study should provide interesting data.
The USFWS put together a report to summarize information available on the controversy about spinning-wing decoys, and sent it out to flyway councils. It hopes to have a full discussion at July flyway meetings.
The USFWS is concerned about lesser scaup (bluebill) populations, and the agency is carefully watching numbers.
The special spring season on snow and Ross' geese, to help reduce and control the population of light geese, was intended to reduce the population by 50 percent, which meant a harvest of 1.5 million snow geese each year. During the past four years the total harvest has ranged from 1.1 million to 1.5 million per year. Blohm said those harvests are helping reduce the populations and their impact on Arctic vegetation. Several poor years of production also have helped keep numbers down.