Hunters may have shorter duck season

Associate Editor

Madison Drought conditions in much of Canada and potential
changes in season frameworks could contribute to a more restrictive
waterfowl season for Wisconsin duck hunters this fall.

Furthermore, U.S. Fish and Wildlife (FWS) officials are tweaking
the Adaptive Harvest Management models which they say may be
overestimating the spring breeding population.

Together, these things could lead to a moderate season
framework.

“We’re kind of on the bubble,” said Jeff Pritzl, Wisconsin DNR
acting migratory game bird specialist. “It depends on the breeding
survey and the spring pond index.”

Since 1995, when adaptive harvest management (AHM) a
data-intensive system for optimizing hunting opportunity while
maintaining the long-term welfare of ducks was implemented, the
season has been liberal, with 60-day seasons for the past several
years. A moderate framework would keep the bag limit at six ducks,
but drop the season to 45 days.

Dry conditions in many regions in which ducks nest appear to be
the most ominous indicator the Wisconsin season could be different
this fall, said Steve Wilds, FWS migratory bird chief in
Minneapolis.

“All of the Canadian provinces are very dry,” Wilds said. “There
is some water in parts of western Manitoba, but Alberta and
Saskatchewan are very dry.”

Some areas of North Dakota have experienced a similar dry spell,
Wilds said. Spring and early summer rains are needed to improve
breeding habitat.

“We’re concerned about the outlook for this season’s duck
production,” he said. Wet conditions are needed soon for early
breeders such as mallards and pintails.

Possible season framework changes also could have a bearing on
how long the duck season lasts this fall.

For several years, some states in the southern end of the flyway
have lobbied for a later close. In fact, it was nearly granted
during the season this year. Northern states, meanwhile, say that
pushing back the close of southern seasons puts them at a
disadvantage, according to Wilds.

Currently, the FWS is accepting comment until May 1 on a
proposal that could allow the season to open the Saturday nearest
Sept. 24 (formerly the Saturday nearest Oct. 1) and close the last
Sunday in January (formerly the Sunday nearest Jan. 20). However,
those changes could affect duck harvest. The proposal also
recommends keeping these changes in place for three years in order
to evaluate their impacts.

“Most data suggest if we allow all the states that might use
that (later close of the season in the South) as an option, the
harvest might increase,” Wilds said. Taking advantage of the
earlier date could mean a Sept. 21 opener in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin is split into two duck zones, and according to Pritzl,
spring hearing voters in the north and south zones had different
opinions about the early opening day.

“There was more support for taking advantage of Sept. 21 in the
north, but not in the south,” he said. Also, the state would have
the option of splitting the season within either of the zones to
allow for an earlier hunt and also a later season close.

The third factor that could influence the 2002 duck season is
adjustment to models used to estimate the spring breeding
population of ducks, including recruitment and survival models.

“We’ve been looking at the models and constantly learning,”
Wilds said of the period between 1995 and the present. “What we
learned was that we need to incorporate new information into the
models.” How exactly the adjustments will affect spring breeding
estimates and the hunting season isn’t yet known.

AHM breaks down season frameworks into four categories,
including: liberal (60 days, six ducks), moderate (45 days, six
ducks), restrictive (30 days, three ducks), and very restrictive
(20 days, three ducks).

Pritzl said retired migratory game bird ecologist Jon Bergquist
likely will be replaced by DNR waterfowl researcher Ron Gatti at
upcoming Mississippi Flyway meetings. Several counties passed a
resolution at the recent hearing asking that Bergquist’s vacant
position be immediately filled, despite a state hiring freeze.

Canvasbacks

Last year, hunters in the Mississippi Flyway, including
Wisconsin, were given 20 days in which to hunt canvasbacks. That
was a change from a policy that either closed or opened the entire
season to a daily bag of one canvasback a policy in place to
protect the species from overharvest. This year, the FWS has
proposed returning to this “all or nothing” rule.

In general last year, states chose the 20 days in which
canvasbacks were most likely to be passing through. Thus, the
harvest may have been similar to past, full-season harvests.

The FWS objective is a spring breeding population of 500,000
cans. Last year, while the spring estimate was greater than
500,000, factors of natural mortality and expected poor production
lead officials to believe harvest during the entirety of a liberal
season would drop canvasback numbers below 500,000, thus
necessitating a shorter season.

The Mississippi Flyway Council, while supporting a spring goal
of 500,000, recommended lowering the threshold to 400,000 before
complete closure of a season on cans.

Wilds expects harvest information from 2001, not yet available,
to play a role in determining what kind of season, if any, hunters
will have for canvasbacks this fall. As will spring breeding
population and pond counts.

“If they’re in great shape this spring, it won’t be an issue,”
he said.

Wood ducks

Though an often-discussed topic, there’s been no proposal to
increase the bag limit on wood ducks.

People tend to be more cautious with wood duck limits, officials
say.

That’s because, except in Eastern states, wood ducks are nearly
impossible to count in the spring because they prefer forest
habitat. Yet, the harvest remains high. For a number of years,
woodies trailed only mallards in Mississippi Flyway hunters’ bags,
Wilds said.

Throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s, they held this status.
From 1997 through 2000, they dropped to fourth, yet the number
harvested increased, he said. Typically, the wood duck harvest
reflects season length and limits. The limit on wood ducks has been
two in the daily bag for several years.

“There always has been some concern about over-shooting wood
ducks,” Wilds said. “That doesn’t mean that we are, and it doesn’t
mean an increase (in bag limits) would have a negative effect on
their population. We just haven’t been willing to take that
step.”

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