Duck hunters will find plenty to cheer about in the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, released Friday by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The fourth highest Canadian pond count on record propelled the breeding populations of three duck species – northern shovelers, redheads and canvasbacks-to all-time highs and pushed the green-winged teal population to its second-highest level on record. Blue-winged teal took advantage of improved water conditions on both sides of the border to achieve their third highest breeding population ever.
The total-duck breeding population climbed 14 percent to 41 million birds and mallards rose 10 percent to just over 8 million. May ponds across the surveyed area were at 7 million, a 15 percent increase from 2006 and 44 percent higher than the long-term average.
“The breeding grounds got wet and five species are at or above record levels-that’s great news,” said Delta Waterfowl President Rob Olson after reviewing the numbers.
Of the other surveyed species, gadwall rose 19 percent to 3.4 million breeding birds, wigeon jumped 29 percent to 2.8 million, green-winged teal rose 13 percent to 2.9 million, blue-winged teal were up 14 percent at 6.7 million, shovelers rose 24 percent to 4.5 million, redheads climbed 10 percent to just over 1 million, scaup bounced 6 percent from year’s record low to 3.5 million and canvasbacks jumped by a surprising 25 percent to 865,000.
Olson credits excellent water conditions in the parklands of Canada for the record redhead and canvasback numbers and near-record for green-wings.
About the only bad news in the breeding survey was the beleaguered pintail, which dipped to 3.3 million in spite of a 111 percent jump in the eastern Dakota survey area.
Olson says the good news extends well beyond the end of May, when crews from Fish and Wildlife and the Canadian Wildlife Service wrapped up the exhaustive month-long ground and air survey.
“In many areas of the breeding grounds, heavy rains continued into June and July, which is quite unusual,” he says. “When small wetlands are abundant, hens are more likely to re-nest and brood survival increases dramatically. For that reason, we expect good production from these areas.”
Despite all the good news, Olson advises hunters to temper their expectations about the prospects for the fall season, at least as far as mallards and pintails are concerned.
“Production is a function of when and where the water comes,” he explains. “Ideally, the most productive habitat gets wet early, when the first ducks arrive. This year some of the best areas were dry right up to the time the survey was conducted. The Coteau in the Dakotas didn’t get rain until after the mallards and pintails had gone north, and the southern grasslands in Saskatchewan were dry.
“Those are two of the most productive areas for mallards and pintails,” he says. “We’d be more optimistic about those species if those areas had been wet early. The good news is that late-nesting ducks like blue-winged teal, gadwalls and shovelers should continue to do well.
“The parklands of Saskatchewan were extremely wet and attracted a lot of mallards, but research tells us that production in the parklands is only marginal compared to the prairies.”
Olson says he continues to be concerned about low mallard numbers on the Canadian prairie despite the excellent water conditions of recent years. Saskatchewan’s pond count has risen 105 percent since 2004 and is now 52 percent above its long-term average, but mallards are only 4 percent above the long-term average. Alberta was 68 percent wetter than the long-term average, but mallard numbers there are down 24 percent long-term. Manitoba was 21 percent over the LTA in ponds with just 2 percent more mallards than average.
By contrast, the mallard count in the eastern Dakotas was up 138 percent long-term on a 23 percent increase in ponds. “We know that mallards tend to home in on the areas where they were hatched,” Olson explains, “so the U.S. number would suggest that the Conservation Reserve Program is still hatching a lot of ducks and that we have some ongoing habitat problems in prairie Canada,” Olson says.
A similar trend is apparent with pintails, says Delta Scientific Director Frank Rohwer. “The lack of response by pintails in Canada is noteworthy,” Dr. Rohwer says. “This is the second wettest year on record in Alberta, yet the pintail count was down 47 percent from a year ago and 55 percent from the long-term average. Saskatchewan was down 6 percent for the year and 21 percent long-term. Pintails track ponds, but they didn’t in Canada.
“Yet even as the pintail count was dropping in Canada, it was through the roof in the eastern Dakotas. Saskatchewan and Alberta are the traditional pintail factories, but when two-thirds more pintails nest in the eastern Dakotas than Alberta, that tells us something about the importance of CRP.”
“The mallard breeding population is at its North American Waterfowl Management goal, and CRP gets most of the credit,” says Olson. “The U.S. mallard population is 116 percent above its North American Plan goal, but Canada is 20 percent below its goal.
“That’s a huge concern, because we know we’re going to lose a minimum of a million acres of CRP in the next few years, and for every acre of CRP that disappears, mallard numbers will drop, no matter how much moisture the breeding grounds get.
“Mallards and pintails arrive on the breeding grounds early, when cover is sparse and predators don’t have much in the way of alternative prey,” Olson explains.
“CRP provides the big blocks of dense nesting cover mallards and pintails need. Canada doesn’t have a program comparable to CRP, and that’s why mallard and pintail numbers haven’t responded despite the ideal wetland conditions.”
Olson says the numbers demonstrate the importance of U.S. duck hunters encouraged their representatives in Congress to support CRP, swampbuster and sodsaver in the current farm bill, along with the Emergency Wetland Loan Act and the Clean Water Restoration Act.
“Historically, most of the continent’s ducks originated in Canada, but thanks to CRP, the Clean Water Act and the duck stamp, a significant percentage of today’s ducks originate in the U.S. It’s important that we hang onto the programs responsible for producing those birds.”