Duck hunters received some good news earlier this week when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released its annual report on the breeding duck population.
The 2017 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations survey, a joint effort between USFWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service, estimates there were 47.3 million breeding ducks in North America this spring, which is slightly below the 2016 estimate of 48.4 million. Still, this year’s numbers, as a whole, are 34 percent above the long-term average and are the fifth-highest total breeding duck population on record since the survey started in 1955.
Although 2017 numbers were down slightly, a few duck species saw some small gains. In particular, the survey showed the pintail population increased for the first time in five years, and the gadwall estimate increased 13 percent to an all-time high.
The mallard population dropped 11 percent to an estimated 10.49 million. However, greenheads remain 34 percent above the long-term average.
Fewer resident ducks
Throughout the Dakotas drought conditions have dried up many smaller seasonal wetlands, putting a visible dent in the resident duck population. To put it simply, with less water, there have been fewer ducks around this spring and summer compared to recent years. That had some diehard waterfowl hunters worried that duck populations were trending downward.
“I think from the report what you can tell is that even though South Dakota and parts of North Dakota are in a drought, duck populations, continentally, haven’t suffered,” said Randy Meidinger, Ducks Unlimited’s regional biologist from Long Lake.
Meidinger said it’s not uncommon for ducks and other breeding waterfowl to simply go where there’s more water to raise their young.
“In years like this where an area is dry they move to where habitat conditions are more preferable,” he said. “When they move north in the spring, some may or may not stop based on water conditions, and this year a lot of birds ended up nesting farther up in Canada where there was ample water. So, in Canada, they likely saw more nesting birds this year while we saw fewer.”
Meidinger said this is not abnormal behavior, as ducks have been conditioned to seek out suitable wetlands surrounded by quality grasslands for nesting and brood-rearing habitat.
“In years when we have good water, they’ll just stay here, but we didn’t have those outstanding conditions like we’ve had during some years,” he said. “It’s part of the history of the region’s wet-dry cycle. The birds are accustomed to it, and there are typically some wetter spots they can rely on.”
Meidinger said ducks that would typically nest in the Dakotas, which lie in the southern portion of the Prairie Pothole Region, likely ended up in the northern parts of the region. In really dry years, though, Meidinger said ducks will push even farther north into the Prairie Parklands in the northern portions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba or the boreal forests found farther to the northeast.
Because fewer ducks settled across the Dakotas this spring, Meidinger believes hunters should expect a slower start to the duck hunting season, which opens Sept. 30 across most of eastern South Dakota.
“I’d expect a fall flight similar to what we had last year,” he said. “Early season will be tough because because local duck production was down. We’ve had some rain lately, though, and if we continue to get rain and some local wetlands hold some of that water, migrating birds will give us some better late-season hunting.”
If dry conditions persist and pockets of water are few and far between come duck season, Meidinger said the ducks might pass over the region on their way south.
“If it’s dry yet, they’ll stay farther north until the weather pushes them through,” he said. “They’ll just fly over us on their way to their wintering grounds, or they won’t stay for an appreciable amount of time.”
Hunters should spend a little more time scouting in the next few weeks to get a handle on what duck marshes are holding water, Meidinger said, otherwise they could be hung out to dry come opening day.
“Look at past radar precipitation maps that show a few township maps where they’ve had rain,” he said. “Your favorite duck hole might be dry this year. You might have to put on a few extra miles scouting, but you might find some pretty good hunting if you find the water.”
Habitat remains key
Meidinger also said drought conditions can actually help regenerate stagnate wetlands.
“No one likes a drought, but in the bigger picture, a one- or two-year dry cycle is beneficial to dry down those wetlands,” he said. “That’s how they recycle and recharge all their nutrients.”
To that end, Meidinger believes habitat is still the key component to keeping duck numbers at record highs.
“If we ever get back into a normal wet-dry cycle, we have to ensure there is habitat remaining that is going to maintain those long-term averages,” he said. “If we lose wetlands and upland habitat, that will certainly impact our future duck populations and their ability to rebound if we get into a prolonged drought.”
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2017 breeding duck population, by the numbers
• Mallards: 10.5 million, 11% lower than 2016 and 34% above long-term average
• Gadwall: 4.2 million, 13% above 2016 and 111% above long-term average
• American wigeon: 2.8 million, 19% below 2016 and 6% above long-term average
• Green-winged teal: 3.6 million, 16% below 2016 and 70% above long-term average
• Blue-winged teal: 7.9 million, 18% above 2016 and 57% above long-term average
• Northern shovelers: 4.4 million, 10% above 2016 and 69% above long-term average
• Northern pintails: 2.9 million, 10% above 2016 and 27% below long-term average
• Redheads: 1.1 million, 13% below 2016 and 55% above long-term average
• Canvasbacks: 700,000, similar to 2016 and 25% above long-term average
• Scaup: 4.4 million, 12% below 2016 and 13% below long-term average
Source: Ducks Unlimited