Will Dakota ducks head east?
By Tim Spielman
St. Paul - Ducks of several species returning north last spring likely surveyed conditions in the eastern Dakotas, decided to conserve some energy, and set their wings. Surveys indicate, most notably, mallards and pintails congregated in much higher numbers in the Dakotas than in prairie Canada during this spring's breeding season.
Opinions vary, but most agree that's not necessarily good news for Minnesota duck hunters. Officials say as ducks begin to migrate from the eastern Dakotas come fall, few will cross over the border to provide Minnesota waterfowlers added opportunity. Good breeding conditions this year resulted in a May continental duck count similar to last year (about 41 million), according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; conditions in the Dakotas might have improved brood survival.
But that might merely help Dakota hunters, and those in states to their south.
"It will be a strong flight, but it probably will miss Minnesota," said Dennis Simon, the state DNR's wildlife chief. "It's going to be a disappointing year again; that's my prediction."
Far western Minnesota might be an exception, Simon said. Good pond conditions there might've attracted ducks, as it did in North and South Dakota.
This spring, the estimated breeding duck population in Minnesota was about 530,000, down from about 540,000 last year, and about 15 percent below the long-term average. The number of Canada geese counted this spring wasn't too far behind the duck count; geese numbered about 311,000, according to the DNR.
But some of those locally produced birds might have already exited the state by the Oct. 2 duck opener; early migrants like wood ducks and teal are usually the first to leave, and earlier this week, Simon said states like Nebraska and others that offer an early teal season reported "tremendous teal shooting," with a second wave of birds showing up.
"We might not have many birds around on the opener," he said.
Of course, there remain a number of great unknowns as the season approaches, namely the weather conditions that will lead up to the hunt - conditions that will affect bird movement, crop harvest, and more.
"The big thing will be the weather between now and the beginning of October - how many wood ducks and teal we'll lose," said Brad Nylin, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association.
View from the north
Generally speaking, Minnesota, like the Dakotas, is wet, much wetter for this time of year than normal, according to Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist in Bemidji.
"It's been very wet throughout the growing season, which isn't always good for ducks," he said, citing a poor rice crop in some parts of the state.
And while a few added ponds in the state might provide staging areas for ducks, it also will increase the need for duck hunters to scout out possible new locales.
Cordts suggests hunters look beyond their usual blinds.
"You can't expect that from year to year your duck lake is going to be the same," he said. "Poke around and find new places. There certainly are plenty of places to hunt in the state."
The Dakota dilemma
For the folks at Delta Waterfowl, the fact that ducks are being produced en masse in the eastern Dakotas is a good thing, but it's also a warning sign: The prairie provinces in Canada - Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba - although wet, aren't as valuable for ducks anymore.
Further, the Dakotas continue to lose valuable habitat to the plow, and they're not always going to be as wet as they are now, according to John Devney, senior vice president for Delta.
Canada hasn't had a Farm Bill CRP-type program to preserve duck breeding habitat. Meanwhile, the Dakotas continue to lose Conservation Reserve Program habitat.
Ducks began to find the Dakotas more preferable during the '90s, Devney said. The past two years have shown just how much so. But the Dakotas can't always be counted on to produce the majority of North America's ducks.
"We've got to find ways to fix prairie Canada," he said. "Sooner or later, it's going to get dry in the Dakotas."
In past years, Devney said, the harvest of ducks in Minnesota has been proportional to the level of duck numbers overall. The past couple years, as duck breeding in the Dakotas has become more evident, that hasn't been the case. And hunter numbers in the Gopher State have dipped.
Last year, there were about 78,000 duck hunters; they harvested about 576,000 ducks, Simon said. That decrease from the previous hunting season was a continuation of a downward harvest trend this decade.
Simon said he subscribes to the theory that Dakota-nesting ducks tend to avoid Minnesota.
"Some people don't believe it, but I think it's true," he said.
Delta, in a recent article in its magazine ("The Duck Factory Turned Upside-Down)," called the growing predisposition of ducks to nest in the Dakotas "a worrisome trend in the distribution of breeding ducks, one that could have serious implications for the fall flights of the future."
The abundance of ducks in the Dakotas might also become a "decoy" factor, Cordts says.
"Ducks attract ducks in the fall," he said, referring to the migration of Canada-produced waterfowl. "And right now, there are lots of ducks in the eastern Dakotas.
Geese: the silver lining
While few officials are making bold predictions of a stellar duck-hunting opener, there could be lots of geese around to fill the gaps in Minnesota's fall skies.
Cordts said the number of breeding ducks north of Minnesota is very good, and in-state production was good, too.
Further, crop harvest might be on schedule, unlike last year, when rains hindered the harvest of both soybeans and corn across most of ag country.
Nylin said goose hunters will benefit from the fact that this season the daily bag is three birds, statewide.
"I expect it to be an extremely good season," Cordts said of the state's regular-season goose hunt.
The duck-hunting season begins Oct. 2 and runs through Nov. 30 this year. The daily bag is six ducks, and may not include more than four mallards (only one hen), two redheads, two scaup, two wood ducks, two pintails, one black duck, or one canvasback.
The youth duck hunt will occur this weekend, Saturday, Sept. 18.
For more information, see the Minnesota Hunting Regulations Waterfowl 2010 edition.