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DNR welcomes duck hunter involvement (2004-12-29)
By John Guenther Director, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division

What is happening to our ducks?

The short answer is habitat, which continues to decline in quantity and quality across our state.

But it is more complicated than that. Minnesota has a long history as one of our nation's great waterfowl hunting states. Maintaining that status in coming years will require a concerted effort from hunters, conservationists and government agencies that are responsible for wetland and waterfowl habitat.

Hunters and conservationists have made a good start. Today, more than 15,000 acres of wetlands have been restored or protected in cooperation with conservation groups since 2000 and 91,000 acres of wetland habitat that continue to be enhanced by water level management. In addition, a partnership between the state and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations is growing to accelerate management, enhancement and protection of wetlands and grasslands in Minnesota's prairie pothole region.

The DNR has earmarked $1.8 million over the next two years to move this effort forward, The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has pledged $1.35 million and The Nature Conservancy, $2 million during the same period. The 36,000-acre Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge, which will eventually include 8,000 acres of wetland near Crookston, is another key product of this growing partnership.

But it is not enough.

Waterfowl habitat continues to decline. Moreover, many hunters left the field this fall wondering if Minnesota' s duck hunting tradition is in peril. What follows are answers to the common questions hunters have been asking since autumn.

Why were there fewer ducks over the decoys this year?

It was a combination of factors. First, this fall's weather -- the sixth warmest on record, dating back to 1891 - kept ponds and fields clear of ice and snow. Ducks trickled through the state in small flocks rather than migrating in large concentrations ahead of strong weather systems. The mild weather also afforded prime late-season duck habitat in flooded, un-harvested grain fields across southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Ducks stayed in Canada longer than normal.

As a result, many hunters had fair hunting in the first 10 days of the season when about 50 percent of our waterfowl harvest occurs - but far less success late in the season.

Second, there were fewer birds to begin with. The number of ducks in the fall population index was down 9 percent, from 10.3 million mallards in 2003 to 9.4 million this year. As a comparison, in 1997-99, the fall-flight index ranged from 12-14 million mallards.

What are you hearing from hunters and waterfowl organizations?

We are hearing mixed reports. Some hunters had relatively good duck hunting, especially during the opening days of the season. Others experienced very poor hunting. Regardless, we want to hear more. Indeed, Commissioner Gene Merriam, Deputy Commissioner Mark Holsten and I agreed some time ago that we need to convene a mini-summit on waterfowl issues.

That will likely happen in February. We want to share what we know, listen and harness the energy that is growing about waterfowl and habitat conservation. Part of the summit will focus on Minnesota's situation in relation to other states within the Mississippi Flyway.

Did the ducks avoid Minnesota this year and show up in the Dakotas, Missouri and Arkansas?

The distribution of breeding ducks has shifted farther to the west and south, which means fewer ducks migrate through Minnesota in the fall. This phenomenon is probably a response to excellent wetland and habitat conditions in the Dakotas during recent years.

Most of this fall's surveys and reports showed fewer mallards and scaup in the state this year compared to 2003. In addition, mallards didn't migrate in concentrated flocks. On a positive note, fall surveys showed more ring-necked ducks this season compared to last year. Most of these birds were concentrated on refuge areas.

It's worth noting that other states experienced similar situations. Waterfowl survey data from Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, North Dakota and Louisiana showed fewer ducks in November compared to 2003. Reports from Arkansas, however, indicate higher numbers of mallards and total ducks present in mid-November this year compared to 2003.

Why didn't late-season ducks - scaup and northern mallards- come through in November?

As recently as last fall, large concentrations of northern mallards, driven by strong weather systems, arrived in portions of western and southern Minnesota in November. The mild weather conditions this fall, combined with the lower fall-flight index, partially explain the absence of migrating mallards this year.

Wetland conditions were excellent in most areas of the state throughout the season so we were a bit disappointed that mallard numbers were not higher on some of our managed areas in November.

The declining population of scaup continues to perplex to waterfowl biologists across the nation. The continental breeding population has continued to decline and was 27 percent below the long-term average in 2004. In fact, this population has remained below the current long-term average each year since 1984.

We remain concerned about the status of the scaup population and continue to search for concrete solutions through ongoing research in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Wouldn't it help to hold the opener later or split the season so hunting would be open when late-migrating ducks finally come through?

A later season opener tends to be more popular in the southern part of Minnesota, where wetlands and shallow lakes tend to freeze later. However, hunters might miss out on opportunities for early season migrants like wood ducks and blue-winged teal statewide.

Shallow wetlands and lakes sometimes temporarily freeze early in the fall, when most of Minnesota's annual harvest occurs. A split season could result in loss of hunting opportunity due to freeze-up in both the northern and southern portions of the state.

How does this past season compare with other seasons? Was it really the worst ever?

We won't know the answer until next summer because of the way in which waterfowl harvest research is typically conducted. However, we intend to look into ways to get that data sooner. That means crafting a study that is both accurate yet not unduly expensive.

That said, the annual statewide duck harvest, dating back to 1961, has ranged from a low of about 250,000 in 1988 to a little more than 1.1 million in 1979. In recent years - 2000-2003 - Minnesota's harvest has averaged about 875,000 ducks. Duck hunters had a difficult season this year but certainly not as difficult as 1988.

I thought the DNR was working to improve habitat so migrating ducks would stay longer. What happened to that?

The DNR has implemented a "Fall Use Plan," which is also known as "The Challenge to Restore Minnesota's Wetland and Waterfowl Hunting Heritage." This plan focuses on improving waterfowl food resources, reducing disturbance of roosting waterfowl, and improving production of local waterfowl.

While it is clear we are making some progress, the problems we are facing are huge.

One example of progress was the recent rotenone application at Lake Christina, an important lake for migrating waterfowl in western Minnesota. Initial indications show that the treatment was effective in removing undesirable fish, which in turn, should improve wetland clarity. We expect to see improved waterfowl usage over the next few years.

Other signs of progress include managing more than 170 wild rice lakes and impoundments through a cooperative agreement with Ducks Unlimited, more than 15,000 acres of wetlands restored or protected in cooperation with conservation groups since 2000 and 91,000 acres of wetland habitat that continue to be enhanced by water level management.

The "Fall Use Plan" was updated last July and can be viewed on our website at:

It seems like Minnesota still has plenty of shallow lakes and ponds - how come these aren't attracting more ducks?

There are more than 5,000 shallow lakes in Minnesota. Based on shallow lake surveys, it appears that as many as half of the state's shallow lakes in southern and western Minnesota have poor habitat conditions. Reasons for declining habitat include:

More than 90 percent of prairie wetlands and 99 percent of native prairie grasslands have been lost in the prairie pothole portion of Minnesota. Without the buffer of small wetlands and native grasslands, shallow lakes receive rainwater more quickly and lake levels remain higher for longer, which depletes aquatic vegetation.

Deeper waters allow carp, bullheads, fathead minnows and other bottom-feeding species to survive winter. These fish increase cloudiness as they stir bottom sediment. They also feed on invertebrates which otherwise reduce algae and provide food for bottom-feeding ducks.

Other issues include loss of native shoreline from development, increased motorized recreational use of waters by boaters, anglers and hunters.

With deeper water, less vegetation and fewer protein-rich invertebrates, the large shallow lakes attract fewer ducks, geese, shorebirds, pelicans, gulls and other birds. The absence of smaller, buffering wetlands means fewer places for ducks to nest and produce young in the spring.

As part of the Fall Use Plan, the DNR began monitoring 40 shallow lakes across the state to serve as case-study lakes over the next decade. By analyzing data on waterfowl use, water quality, vegetation, and invertebrate abundance we hope to find correlations with duck use and other variables we measure. This monitoring should ultimately allow us to make more informed decisions, improve our management and, ultimately, increase waterfowl use on these and other shallow lakes.

Would it help if more duck hunters got more involved in local government?

Absolutely. Our goal for waterfowl management in the state is to conserve, protect and manage waterfowl and wetland habitats in the state. This remains an ambitious and daunting task when we consider some of the waterfowl and wetland-related issues in the state.

The political arena is an important part of both identifying problems and finding solutions. For example, conversion of small wetlands and development of shallow lake shorelines are often local decisions influenced by local citizens.

The establishment of waterfowl rest areas, refuges, sanctuaries, and designated wildlife lakes are other actions that are largely locally driven. There are often opportunities to comment on local, statewide, and national plans and programs.

Programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) provide tremendous benefits to many wildlife species and grassland-nesting birds, including waterfowl. These types of programs need continued support from well-informed citizens and groups of constituents.

Minnesota usually leads the nation in numbers of duck hunters, so we have a tremendous resource to call on to help us work towards improving waterfowl and wetland conservation efforts in the state.


I'm sorry, but this is more beauruecratic mumble jumble IMHO. They will not think out of the box! A split season OPTION is viable. Above he poohs poohs it. They have this all or nothing mentality. Pure BS! Why not give the hunters an "A" or "B" option? "A" being consectutive days afield with B a split season for those that want it?

195 Posts
A split season?...there are no ducks and we talk about how to kill more?

A decade to study shallow lakes? Waterfowling will be over long before that if the path we are on now continues.

Bottomline.....32 million birds with a generous 10% nest success, which in probability is now in single digits, amounts to a astounding fall flight of:::::

48 million birds....less than half of NAWMP's goal....almost a decade has passed since this plan was adopted...and we are less than half way there?

And the 48 million is assuming exactly half of the spring count were hens and they had 10 chicks each......

So even being santa claus with the numbers.....things are reality they are horrifying

1,291 Posts
It is the same old bs always an excuse on why the ducks did not show up. Now they want to do a ten year study. They seem to be famous for wasting our money on studies and not for the resource. I was so impressed with the spinning wing decoy study which cost a bunch of money to do. Regardless of it they were more effective or not once they got to the other states the spinners could bring them right in. I will never quite understand our dnr. As dennis anderson said maybe boycotting the season is the only way to get them to really listen. I think the rally will help but we will get alot of lip service again. If I dont see a real effort on the part of the dnr I am done hunting this state before next year. I will give my money to a state like missouri that puts back into the resource.
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