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Last update: July 22, 2004 at 11:50 PM
Dennis Anderson: When ducks direly need help, rule makers look the other way
Dennis Anderson, Minneapolis Star Tribune
July 23, 2004 ANDY0723

W hat we know about duck hunting for sure is that it hasn't been very good of late. Crumble the cookie any way you want. But when Arkansas doesn't have mallards in December and January, and Louisiana hunters have trouble finding even gray ducks, it can be fairly said there aren't many ducks.

When the subject is bad news, Minnesota duck hunters, of course, are in a class by themselves. With most of our wetlands gone and many that remain severely degraded, it's little wonder Minnesota, which once ranked second to none as a stopover for migrant birds and was also pretty darn good for duck-rearing, now is mostly a state vacated by waterfowlers come October.

But not everyone has trouble finding ducks. Consider not only biologists, particularly those employed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but also those working for the various states, among them Minnesota.

Where others see only empty skies, these folks can find ducks, mallards in particular, even if only on their laptops. And this is a fear that should strike close to the heart of anyone who loves waterfowl.

Many of these duck experts are in Duluth this week for the Mississippi Flyway Council meetings. Similar gatherings of the Atlantic, Central and Pacific flyway councils also are occurring, as state biologists use data gathered by the Fish and Wildlife Service to propose season length and bag limits for the fall.

Though it was widely believed up and down the Mississippi Flyway at the end of the last duck season that hunting would be severely restricted in 2004-05, with the season lasting no longer than 30 days (down from 60), and daily bag limits reduced to three from six, there is no suspense over changes this week in Duluth.

The reason: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists have indeed, again, found plenty of ducks in their spring breeding-pair surveys, thereby greasing the skids for another 60-day, six-ducks-daily season.

Perhaps North America's waterfowling history, which dates to the days of the punt gun, knows no greater irony than the Flyway Council's meeting this year in Duluth, home of Dave Zentner.

In the past year, Zentner organized a group of concerned waterfowlers that included Roger Holmes, retired director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Division and one-time chairman of the Mississippi Flyway Council; Harvey Nelson, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bigwig and former chairman of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan; and Art Hawkins, retired Fish and Wildlife Service Mississippi Flyway biologist.

Funny thing, but these guys think ducks are in trouble, and in a report, they suggested the Fish and Wildlife Service reorient its approach to duck management.

Rather than being, essentially, a broker of ducks that distributes the annual kill among states, Zentner's group argues that the service should become an advocate for a more conservation-oriented duck-hunting ethic.

This might include allowing shooting to begin not a half-hour before sunrise, when species identification is difficult, but instead at sunrise. Perhaps also hunters should be encouraged, if not required, to count unrecovered ducks as part of their bags.

Most important, the panel said, the service should begin weighing habitat considerations and hunting ethics equally with bag limits and season lengths.

The good intentions of Zentner's group notwithstanding, it's doubtful such changes will occur. Its head in the sand, and comfortably so, the service believes its duty is not to pass judgment on those state biologists who yearly push for the maximum duck kill - but rather to find ways to accommodate those demands.

This while, literally, Rome is burning in the form of lost waterfowl habitat - in the Dakotas, Louisiana and every state in between.

It is on the issue of lost habitat that Fish and Wildlife Service (and state) biologists are most culpable.

No one knows better than these professionals that this continent cannot sustain its duck populations - whatever their actual numbers are - at the current rate of habitat loss. Regarding this, we are, each of us, watching a tradition as old as the nation itself disappear while, as in Duluth this week, we debate the length of the coming season and the number of ducks we can kill.

Everyone knows the general public is indifferent to, if not ignorant of, the welfare of waterfowl and waterfowling, if not indifferent to the welfare of the planet itself.

Which is why those whose special interest in, and knowledge of, such matters bear a special burden. They alone see the big picture. And as Zentner's group argues, that picture should include more than the number of dead ducks a given year's population can sustain.

Some years ago in Louisiana, on a peerless January morning deep in a coastal marsh, with the wind blowing and ducks flying, a friend and I were talking.

The friend, a Louisiana native, said:

"I believe when the last damn duck flies over this state, everyone who's able will jump up to take a crack at it."

Should that fateful day ever come, the next spring, Fish and Wildlife Service biologists probably again will find just enough birds - if only on their laptops - to offer a 60-day season again.

Dennis Anderson is at [email protected].
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