Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about the upcoming waterfowl season and future seasons.
Along with the legion of Louisiana duck hunters, Larry Reynolds celebrates the news that of thousands of ducks invading the state during the last two weeks.
Reports like teal, pintails, gray ducks, wigeon, shovelers, even some early mallards, are covering the Atchafalaya Delta.
Teal are covering ponds and marshes along the southwest coast, and public hunting spots like Pass a Loutre near the mouth of the Mississippi River are getting more and more of these winged migrants every day.
Starting in early October, a succession of increasingly colder cold fronts has Louisiana the terminus for this centuries-old migration.
The ducks are here: The state’s West Zone duck season opens Saturday. East Zone hunters follow a week later.
And with a four-month-old report showing the northern breeding grounds holding the most ducks in 50 years, Reynolds knows that the duck-hunting legion enters another season with extra-high expectations.
Fact is, Louisiana, in the Mississippi Flyway, comes into the 2011-2012 season off last season when hunters in this state took more ducks — 2.7 million — than any other state in the Lower 48. And, they will be hunting for 60 days, another in a more than 10-year line of the most liberal number of days allowed for this flyway.
While there have been ups and downs since this 60-day string began late in the 1990s, duck numbers have been solid since a decade-long drought was broken in the mid-1990s on the Canadian prairies, a drought that gave Mississippi Flyway hunters a string of 30-day seasons in the early 1990s.
And with breeding grounds in the Canadian prairies, Montana and the Dakotas expected to stay wet at least through next year, ducks and duck hunters will have it good.
Reynolds, the state’s Waterfowl Study leader, sees a black linings in those silver clouds: “We’ve had excellent habitat on both sides of the border, record-high breeding populations and good reproduction success.
“All that blankets and underlying darkness that overlays waterfowl population security at this point,” Reynolds continued. “What has happened over the last five years is definitely a negative for the long-term health of waterfowl populations.”
What’s happened is a strange combination of federal budgetary problems; failures by Congress to continue funding wetland conservation programs; the full effects of a 10-year-old Supreme Court decision that weakened wetland-protection provisions in the Clean Water Act; and, high commodity prices.
Congress has reduced funding of the Conservation Reserve Program, a plan that paid farmers to “reserve” marginally productive farmlands and put them back into wetlands.
“And,” Reynolds said, “we have seen (farmers) not resign CRP contracts. Commodity prices are high, and that means there is pressure to put land back into production.
“We’re seeing that in the Dakotas every year. We see more and more land back into crops, and that means we’ve lost lots of nesting habitat on the landscape.”
Canada also has struggled to get farmers and landowners to surrender marginal acreage to resurrect what was a vast grassland-wet pothole landscape across the central and western provinces. There is no program like CRP in Canada.
“Had we somehow been capable of stopping wetland loss in Canada 10-15 years ago, the (population) models we have show we would be at long-term (waterfowl) population goals in Canada,” Reynolds said.
Numbers are as bad in the U.S. A recent Ducks Unlimited report supported Reynolds assumption of layered problems:
From 1998-2004, there was a net gain of 32,000 wetland acres per year. Since 2005, the next study indicated a net loss of 13,800 wetland acres each year.
Coastal wetlands lost acreage three times faster with about 25,000 acres of salt marsh gone annually between 2004-2009.
And, more than 140,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forests disappeared between 2004-2009, a substantial loss for overwintering ducks.
“Right now we are celebrating great duck populations, but things are out there — and everybody knows about them — that paints a picture that has me worried,” Reynolds said. “I’m concerned that when this good run of wet habitat is over, and we all know that wet-dry cycles are a fact, that all this will come to end.”
Next week: The hunter