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Targeting ducks: Ducks Unlimited works for waterfowl, but duck population dwindles
Dennis Anderson, Star Tribune
May 2, 2004ANDY0502

Crouched in a hunting blind with his dad many years ago, watching ducks buzz their decoys, Dan Fabian couldn't imagine passing the first day of waterfowl season without downing a mallard, wood duck or teal.

That happened to him on opening day last year.

Fabian, of Stillwater, and about 125,000 other Minnesotans who hunt ducks are part of a tradition that dates to statehood. Minnesota traditionally puts more duck hunters in the field each fall than any other state.

But that part of Minnesota culture is being threatened as never before.

The number of ducks killed daily by Minnesota waterfowlers has declined 20 percent since the 1970s, largely because of habitat losses attributed to urban sprawl, wetland drainage and agriculture expansion.

Ducks Unlimited volunteer Dan Fabian and son JaredCarlos GonzalezStar TribuneFabian, 42, knows such losses will continue. Yet he hopes that on some cool October morning he'll share a duck blind with his 11-year-old son, Jared -- their eyes cast to the sky, scanning for birds -- just as Fabian did with his dad long ago.

For that reason, Fabian soldiers on as one of thousands of volunteers who spearhead fundraising banquets for Ducks Unlimited, a 675,000-member organization with headquarters in Memphis. He's part of the reason Minnesota usually ranks third in money contributed to Ducks Unlimited. He has had a role in making membership increase. And he keeps working, although some duck populations have gone missing.

A drake mallardTom WallaceStar TribuneDucks Unlimited is at a crossroads. Duck numbers are down. Important prairie breeding grounds are being plowed under. Hunters are restless. And some critics say Ducks Unlimited isn't strident enough in its defense of wetlands and other wild areas.

The future of ducks and duck hunting depends, Fabian believes, on whether Ducks Unlimited succeeds in what it says is an unprecedented effort to save threatened habitats that, once lost, might be gone forever.

Which is why he and about 45,000 other Minnesotans belong to the group. They donate about $5 million annually to counter the effects not only of agriculture and development but, they say, of an indifferent public.

"Doing nothing is not an option," Fabian said. "My hope is that when my son's kids are old enough to hunt, there will still be ducks around."

Changing priorities

How and where Ducks Unlimited has spent its habitat-restoration money have changed many times since its founding in 1937.

Most of the group's decisions have been influenced by science, some by politics and some by self-interest.

Until the middle of the last century, Ducks Unlimited believed it could best help ducks by building dams and creating large water impoundments on Canadian prairies, where more than half of North American ducks are produced in most years.

Later it hoped to foster greater duck production by focusing on broader Canadian landscapes, including small wetlands and potholes.

But pressure from United States members in the early 1980s to restore lost duck habitat near their homes in part caused Ducks Unlimited to redirect expenditures to this country.

Today, only 10.5 percent (about $14.1 million in 2003) of the group's habitat money is spent in Canada, with 77 percent (about $104 million) spent in the United States.

That spending shift -- which some believe has placated Ducks Unlimited members at the expense of ducks -- reflects one of Ducks Unlimited's fundamental challenges: keeping its members happy while also trying to do what is best for ducks.

"We constantly have to fight a balance between raising money locally and educating our supporters that undertaking our work continentally is the secret to the long-term viability of these birds," Ducks Unlimited Chief Executive Officer Don Young said.

Conservationist Aldo Leopold made the same point a century ago, saying that duck management is problematic because the birds migrate in spring and fall, needing food and habitat in many places en route.

Moreover, wherever ducks land they meet people with varying duck-related expectations and traditions.

Cree Indians in northern Canada, for example, have for generations killed ducks not in fall, when they historically have been hunted by others, but in spring, when the birds are fatter and their feathers easier to pluck.

Far to the south, Cajuns living along Louisiana's bayous have long had a tradition, now mitigated, of killing hundreds upon hundreds of ducks, sometimes in a single outing.

And in Minnesota each spring, many residents eagerly await the arrival of these birds and enjoy watching them build nests and hatch their young.

Minnesota also is where hunters in recent years first reported skies not black with ducks -- as they were generations ago -- but nearly devoid of them.

Perhaps not by coincidence, Ducks Unlimited's membership among Minnesotans has been flat for about 10 years.

Resource in trouble

Duck and duck-hunting data compiled by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources paint a picture of a resource -- and a tradition -- in trouble.

The data also suggest the breadth and scope of duck-management issues facing Ducks Unlimited, as well as state and federal wildlife agencies:

• The number of duck hunters in Minnesota is down significantly from its peak in 1971 of 161,000, averaging, since 1994, about 120,000.

• The total 1997-99 duck harvest in Minnesota was 17 percent less than in the 1970s. The shortage is particularly troubling considering that duck populations continentally jumped 69 percent between 1993 and 1999.

• Minnesota hunters historically had ranked third behind Louisiana and California in total duck harvest. Beginning in the 1990s, they slipped to fifth.

Worrisome as well is that fewer states and provinces appear to be contributing to Minnesota's duck harvest than in the past, suggesting a shrinking of continental duck-producing areas. This is important for Minnesota hunters because about 70 percent of ducks they kill in the state each fall are raised outside the state.

Waterfowl managers also worry about excessive hunting pressure applied to ducks where they remain plentiful, noting that today's hunters often travel great distances to find birds.

For example, in North Dakota -- which has long been considered the nation's premier northern duck-hunting state -- nonresident waterfowl hunters increased from about 5,000 in 1990 to about 30,000 in 2002. About half of those hunters were Minnesotans.

Today's hunters also appear to be much more efficient than in the past.

In 1998, about 33 percent fewer duck stamps were sold nationally than in 1970. But the duck harvest was about the same in both years.

Courting members

In Memphis, far from his native Canada, Don Young has a lot on his mind.

Young, 50, grew up on a Saskatchewan grain and dairy farm and was first taken duck hunting by his father at age 2, the same age at which he introduced his two sons to the sport.

As Ducks Unlimited's CEO, hired in 1999, Young oversees a $163 million organization whose members willingly, even enthusiastically, give their time and money to a group they believe not only holds the prospect of increasing duck populations but also helps define who they are.

Proudly, those members display Ducks Unlimited stickers on their pickup trucks and wear Ducks Unlimited caps and other clothing, while anticipating the arrival of Ducks Unlimited magazine in their mailboxes with the eagerness of kids at Christmas.

Many also tune in to Ducks Unlimited's nationally broadcast radio and television programs.

Encouraged by a successful six-year membership and fundraising drive, Young says his group is better prepared than ever to fight to save ducks.

Adding members would buttress that effort even more, Young said, and he thinks he knows who those potential members are and where they are: non-hunters in the suburbs. In a break from tradition, Ducks Unlimited is going after that crowd.

"We believe that water and water conservation will be the environmental issues of the century, and we also believe that no other conservation organization is better suited to sell itself to the public as a prospective savior of these resources than we are," Young said.

Broadening Ducks Unlimited's membership also could offset possible dropouts among hunters who lose interest because of reduced opportunities to bag ducks.

But the group's bigger membership and fatter coffers haven't stilled some dissident voices, some more credible than others.

Two years ago, for example, Young traveled to Louisiana to dispel rumors among hunters there that Ducks Unlimited was stopping ducks from flying south by catching them in huge nets while they passed over Missouri.

Some hunters in Arkansas also have alleged that Ducks Unlimited is planting special crops in South Dakota and elsewhere to keep birds from migrating.

Others criticize Ducks Unlimited for not being tough enough, or perhaps radical enough, in its battle against agriculture and development.

"If Ducks Unlimited was really serious about being the world's largest wetland conservation group, as they say they are, they could do a lot more for wetlands than they do," said Tony Dean of Pierre, S.D., an outdoor writer and broadcaster who once produced the Ducks Unlimited television show.

Acknowledging that Ducks Unlimited lobbies in Washington for more balanced federal farm programs and other conservation plans, Dean noted that the United States is still losing as much as 100,000 acres of wetlands per year.

"With 700,000 members, imagine what Ducks Unlimited could do if they actually took tough positions on wetlands -- drew a line in the sand and said, 'No more drainage.'

"That approach would piss some people off, which they don't want to do because they worry it will cost them money. But if you want to save a resource, that's what you have to do," Dean said.

Dave Zentner of Duluth, a nationally recognized conservationist who belongs to Ducks Unlimited and other groups, questions whether increasing Ducks Unlimited's membership will translate into more and better conservation.

"Look at bluebills, canvasbacks, pintails, black ducks, wood ducks -- they're all in trouble," Zentner said. "Everyone knows Minnesota's duck habitat is bad. But it's not just us anymore. Call around and see if you can find the ducks. They're not in Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana. So where are they?"

Zentner continued:

"I know we need Ducks Unlimited to maintain a constituency for these birds, and as a business organization and a nonprofit fundraiser, they're awesome. But I also know we need a greater emphasis on creating public policy of the kind ducks need to survive in this country.

"Unfortunately, in this area, Ducks Unlimited has rarely weighed in."

Science is a guide

Young has heard it all before. And more.

What is closer to the truth, he said, is that Ducks Unlimited is using the best science and some of the world's best waterfowl managers to fight a habitat-destruction fire closing in from all sides.

Young acknowledged that Minnesota's duck habitat is in rough shape. But so are Louisiana's coastal wetlands, Mississippi's bottomland hardwoods, California's Central Valley and Manitoba and Saskatchewan's potholes, he said.

Especially threatened are North Dakota and South Dakota's grasslands, some of which are being sprayed with Roundup and other herbicides to kill native grasses, then planted with genetically modified crops for the first time.

"Our perspective is that we have to work for cooperative solutions with the people who own these lands," Young said. "We don't stand in the way of agriculture and development. Instead, we want to develop environmentally sound approaches to what farmers and business are doing."

Young said Ducks Unlimited will help save North Dakota and South Dakota grasslands by paying ranchers not to plow them, much as it has paid some farmers not to drain wetlands.

Similarly, Ducks Unlimited is funding research at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon to develop hardier varieties of winter wheat, Young said. Such crops could create broad landscapes of duck-nesting habitat on Canadian prairies.

And Young said President Bush's recent announcement promising to increase wetlands in the United States followed receipt by the White House of more than 20,000 letters from Ducks Unlimited members in a campaign organized by the group's headquarters.

"Good science determines how we direct our resources continentally," he said. "Then we look at opportunities in those areas to see how we can leverage our resources using state, federal and other funds. We tell our members that for every dollar sent to us, we'll multiply it seven times to do our work.

"It is a race against time. That's why we maintain an office in Washington to work with Congress, and that's why we believe growth is key to us. We want to sustain and expand our core customer base of hunters, while expanding our membership into other areas."

Meanwhile, as Fabian and a dozen or so other volunteers met the other night to plan a Ducks Unlimited banquet scheduled for Thursday in Stillwater, some of the men -- hunters all -- worried aloud whether ducks will ever return to Minnesota in reasonably high numbers.

But no one worried about making money at the banquet.

"We sell out every year," Fabian said.

Dennis Anderson is at

[email protected].
Spending money in Minnesota
May 2, 2004MINN0502

Ducks Unlimited spends about $3 million a year in Minnesota.

About $500,000 comes from Ducks Unlimited itself, as part of the approximately $5 million that Minnesota members send to the group annually. The remaining $2.5 million is from state and federal wildlife and agriculture agencies.

Ducks Unlimited's conservation efforts in Minnesota are threefold:

• It encourages wild rice growth in northern Minnesota by, among other things, building water-control structures.

• It employs seven technicians to recruit farmers in key duck-producing areas of the state to enroll in the federal Wetlands Reserve Program, which pays for perpetual land easements and wetland restorations.

• It builds dams and other water-control structures to regulate water levels of shallow lakes.

As of Jan. 1, Ducks Unlimited had spent more than $21 million in Minnesota on habitat projects, affecting, it said, almost 165,000 acres.

Dennis Anderson


Ducks Unlimited history
May 2, 2004DUCHATTER


Founded in 1937, Ducks Unlimited initially spends most of its habitat money in Canada. The majority of North American ducks nest in Canada, and Ducks Unlimited believes it can make the most ducks for its bucks in that country.


Habitat losses in the United States intensify, as small farms yield to much larger operations. Urbanization also takes a toll, especially in Minnesota, where many fertile wetlands in and around the Twin Cities are transformed to storm-water holding ponds.


Members pressure Ducks Unlimited to spend more habitat money in the United States and less in Canada. Ducks Unlimited complies, but some critics say ducks suffer in the process.


Ducks -- and Ducks Unlimited -- face a new threat in North Dakota and South Dakota, the nation's most important duck-nesting states. Farmers and ranchers plow native grasslands to plant genetically modified crops, and biologists worry ducks might suffer irreparably.
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