Monday’s news was not what Louisiana duck hunters, nor wild waterfowlers anywhere north to the Dakotas, wanted to hear and read.
News from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual “Trends on Duck Breeding Populations” report showed duck numbers down across the board, down 13 percent from the estimates in the 2017 report, and down 15 percent from a 2016 high measured at 48,363,000 for 16 species of ducks.
Waterfowl biologists laid the blame for the dwindling numbers on less-than-favorable habitat in the wetlands and uplands on the prairies and in the boreal forest areas of Canada, even though this year’s count of breeding ponds was higher (5.227 million) than the 2016 May Ponds estimate (5,012 million), but much lower than last year’s 6.096 million estimate, a 14 percent decline.
“The dip in the population for prairie-breeding puddle ducks is not unexpected and by no means unprecedented given that conditions on the prairies this spring were drier than last year,” Ducks Unlimited chief biologist Tom Moorman said.
Moorman was elevated to DU’s chief scientist spot after years studying lower Mississippi Flyway habitat and migrations from DU’s Jackson, Mississippi office.
“As a result (of drier conditions), 2018 populations dropped accordingly,” Moorman said. “However, populations of all key species except northern pintails and scaup remain above long-term averages. This year’s breeding population decline is a reminder of the need to sustain the capacity of breeding habitats, particularly in the prairies as we go through natural variation in wetland conditions.
“Waterfowl populations are adapted well to short-term swings in habitat conditions, but we must continue to guard against the long-term loss of prairie breeding habitat,” Moorman said.
With Louisiana’s special September teal season scheduled to run Sept. 15-30, early season hunters can look to teal numbers for an early guide to the overall 2018-2019 duck season.
This year’s survey showed an 18 percent decline in bluewing teal numbers — 6,450,000 from last year’s 7,889,000 estimate — and a 16 percent drop in greenwing teal numbers from 3,605,000 in 2017 to 3,043,000 this year. The 2016 survey had 6,689,000 bluewings and 4,275,000 greenwings .
Frank Rohwer, the former LSU wildlife professor now Delta Waterfowl's president and chief biologist, said hunters should note most species are near or above long-term averages, a number reached by taking estimates from the survey’s 1955 first year through the 2017 count.
“Ducks declined due to dry conditions in large portions of the breeding grounds. Fortunately, we continue to benefit from ‘carryover birds’ hatched during highly productive springs over the past several years,” Rohwer said. “However, timely rains during nesting season, particularly in North Dakota, certainly aided duck production in some regions.”
Rohwer and Moorman agree the drop in breeding numbers means hunters will likely see more mature ducks when they move south from their breeding grounds.
“There will be plenty of ducks in the fall flight,” Rohwer said, “but unlike years when there are plenty of easily decoyed juveniles, hunters can expect savvy, adult birds”