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Quick question leads to intensive hunting survey
Doug Smith, Star Tribune
August 15, 2004 DOUG0815

When Minnesota's 100,000 or so waterfowl hunters step to the counter to buy their hunting licenses, they're given a short verbal survey by the store clerk.

They're asked which migratory bird species they plan to hunt, and how many birds they shot last season. Hunters generally answer the handful of questions quickly, get their license and leave, giving little thought to the mysterious quiz.

But the often misunderstood and somewhat controversial HIP (Harvest Information Program) survey provides federal and state wildlife managers -- and hunters -- with key bird harvest information.

"It helps us understand how many birds are being taken, how the harvest is distributed around the country, and what species are being taken," said Steve Wilds, regional migratory bird chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which conducts the annual survey.

Few waterfowl hunters realize how much there is to the Harvest Information Program survey.Joey McleisterStar TribuneThe survey, for example, showed Minnesota hunters bagged 884,000 ducks last year, including nearly 304,000 mallards, and averaged about 10 ducks apiece for the season.

How can federal officials get all of that information from a 10-second survey? They don't.

Instead, they use those initial survey questions to select a random sample of hunters who are mailed a much more detailed survey and asked to record the number and species of ducks they shoot. (Even hunters who reported they shot no ducks last year are surveyed.) The Fish and Wildlife Service sends out 70,000 surveys to the nation's 1.5 million waterfowl hunters - including 2,200 Minnesota hunters.

"Every hunter, every year, has an equal probability of being selected for the survey," said Ken Richkus, a Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife biologist who works on the HIP survey at the agency's Laurel, Md., office.

The scientific random survey works like a public opinion poll.

If done properly, the responses from a small percentage of people can accurately reflect the opinions -- or in this case, the waterfowl harvest -- of a much larger population.

Accuracy questioned

The HIP survey has been around for only five years. It began in 1998 after federal officials determined the previous hunter survey -- done for decades by surveying those who bought federal duck stamps -- wasn't providing satisfactory information.

Reliability of the old survey came into doubt as more stores, such as Wal-Mart, began selling federal duck stamps. The federal survey only sampled hunters who bought stamps at U.S. Post Offices.

"And it only surveyed duck hunters, so we had no harvest information on other migratory birds," Richkus said, such as woodcock or doves. Hunters of any migratory birds must identify themselves as such and answer the few questions to be "HIP certified."

For three years, officials conducted both surveys. Since 2002, only the HIP survey has been done, and officials are confident it gives an accurate picture of the nation's migratory bird harvest.

This summer, however, Louisiana hunters and state officials were stunned when the Fish and Wildlife Service survey showed hunters there killed 1.3 million ducks, a 61 percent increase over the previous season. That despite reports that last season was one of the worst on record.

Some hunters there said the numbers made them question other Fish and Wildlife Service figures, and the science the agency uses to manage waterfowl.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is confident in the HIP survey, Richkus said. But hunters need to understand its limitations and how to interpret the numbers. For starters, the number of surveys returned by hunters varies from state to state, and thus the "confidence level" of the numbers also varies.

In Louisiana, where only 43 percent of surveyed hunters responded, the agency is 95 percent confident of the 1.3 million duck harvest statistic, plus or minus 14 percent. That means the actual harvest could have been as low as about 1.1 million.

In 2002, Louisiana's duck harvest was 820,800, plus or minus 16 percent, meaning it could have been as high as nearly 1 million. The bottom line: "Statistically, they're not much different," Richkus said.

"In 1999, Louisiana hunters harvested 2 million ducks; last year's harvest was half that," indicative of a poor season reported by hunters.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has greater confidence in the Minnesota duck harvest of 884,500 last year. That's because about 62 percent of Minnesota hunters returned their surveys, and the confidence level of the harvest is a plus or minus 10 percent. That means Minnesota hunters may have shot as few as 796,000 ducks or as many as 973,000.

The HIP survey provides statistically more accurate harvest numbers at the national level (plus or minus 4 percent) and the flyway level (plus or minus 5 percent), than at the state level, Richkus said.

The confidence level of the state numbers could be increased if more hunters selected to be surveyed bothered to fill them out and returned them, Richkus and Wilds said.

"A lot of people just don't want to be bothered," Richkus said.

The HIP survey provides just some of the harvest information collected and used by the Fish and Wildlife Service to manage waterfowl populations. Another smaller survey asks hunters to submit wings of ducks they kill to the agency, which officials use to help determine species harvest.

While both hunter harvest surveys provide important information, they are a minimal component in the setting of hunting seasons and regulations, Wilds and Richkus said.

The annual spring count of breeding ponds on the Canadian prairies and midcontinent mallard population survey are bigger influences on the establishment of annual hunting regulations, officials said.

In Minnesota, HIP hasn't been very controversial. The DNR conducts a postseason hunter harvest survey, and those numbers have been similar to the Fish and Wildlife Service numbers. The state survey showed hunters averaged 10.6 birds in 2002; the federal survey showed 10.8 ducks per hunter.

The state survey tends to show a higher harvest, however, probably because hunters overestimate their harvest after the season.

Concerns remain

Some hunters have complained that they were never asked the HIP survey questions when they bought their license. And there has been some concern that frustrated hunting license sales clerks sometime check off the survey questions themselves, without asking the hunters.

"I hear that from people all the time: 'Hey, they never asked me the questions,' " said Steve Cordts, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist.

While those are concerns, Richkus said even hunters who report not hunting ducks last season have a chance to be surveyed.

Cordts said some have recommended some changes to ensure better compliance with the initial survey: charge a fee for it or have the hunters themselves answer the questions, either on paper or by calling a toll-free number.

There will be more burden placed on license sales clerk this year, with the addition of a dove-hunting season in the state beginning Sept. 1. Doves are migratory birds, and thus included in the HIP survey, along with woodcock, rails and snipe.

Minnesota officials expect 30,000 to 50,000 hunters to hunt doves, and all will have to be HIP "certified."

As it does with waterfowl hunters, the Fish and Wildlife Service randomly selects dove hunters for inclusion in a more detailed survey. About 40,000 of the nation's 2 million dove hunters are surveyed, as are 15,000 of the nation's 200,000 woodcock hunters.

Doug Smith is at [email protected].
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