Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Thursday, February 2nd, 2023

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

By Michael Furtman

Contributing Writer

“Aerial surveys for waterfowl are one of the strongest
investments we can make to continue self-sustaining waterfowl
populations for the enjoyment of people and future generations,”
says Rollin Sparrowe, director (retired), of the Wildlife
Management Institute.

Although that certainly is true, there is nothing that says
these surveys will continue as they have for the past 50 years. In
fact, budget problems under the Bush administration have put the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in a tough position, forcing
it to cut back on some programs, while others have only continued
thanks to help from some states and other conservation
partners.

“Over the past two years we’ve had a flat budget,” said Paul
Schmidt, assistant director, migratory birds and state programs for
the Division of Migratory Bird Management. “And this year we
couldn’t put enough duct tape and bailing wire around it, and so we
had to set some priorities.”

In addition to the spring breeding pair survey, outlined in the
last two installments of this series, the USFWS also conducts a
mid-winter survey. It covers the wintering grounds, annual banding
programs to track duck migration and mortality patterns, and the
annual “wing-bee” that examines the duck wings, and goose tails,
that hunters are asked to send in to evaluate the age distribution
of harvested waterfowl. The information gathered from these
programs is essential to properly managing waterfowl populations
and setting hunting seasons and bag limits.

“What we did is preserve the highest priory monitoring efforts,”
Schmidt said. “The May aerial survey is the most important, so some
of the others, like the mid-winter survey, we could only do a
portion of, and that, only because we got help from states and
partners.”

“There are a number of other individual surveys that we just
couldn’t do,” Schmidt continued, “surveys that didn’t have a direct
bearing on the harvest that we could do without for a year. We hope
that if the budget improves, we can return to the full program next
year.”

For instance, the annual U.S./Canada Cooperative Waterfowl
Banding Program normally is conducted during the month of August by
10 USFWS crews in the Northwest Territories, Alberta, and
Saskatchewan, as well as ten Canadian Wildlife Service crews in
Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. From data received as a result
of hunters reporting leg-bands from harvested ducks, the USFWS can
determine harvest rates, survival rates, band reporting rates,
derivation of harvest, migration routes, and production rates for
various species of ducks. Unfortunately, as a result of budget
cuts, the U.S. funding for this important management tool has been
halved, and some USFWS stations will either be closed or staffed
with skeleton crews.

The USFWS has asked for a budget increase next year, and is
keeping its fingers crossed that the money will appear.

“We were short of doing our normal, standard program by $4.5
million,” Schmidt said. “I guess if you worked in another federal
government program, that amount would seem like small change. But
for us, that’s an enormous shortfall. It is an austere budget
climate, but we’re hopeful we’ll get the funding. We have an
enormous amount of support out there from hunters and others.”

Not only do the budget shortfalls bode ill for waterfowl
surveys, Schmidt points out that the USFWS is responsible for many
other game birds, as well as non-game, whose population survey work
also is being affected. He’s hoping that with the aid of improving
technology, some of the survey work can be resumed.

“We’re looking at reshaping our surveys to be more efficient, to
see what more we can accomplish, even if the funds don’t come
through such as more and better monitoring for other species
woodcock, mourning doves, and non-game birds, because we’re
responsible for them, too.”

What might it mean if the survey work doesn’t return to its
former standards? It may eventually result in a loss of hunting
opportunity.

“Without good data, we’d have to err on the side of
conservation,” Schmidt said, “to ensure we aren’t harming the
resource. That could mean shorter hunting seasons, or lower bag
limits.”

In addition, a lack of scientific information for the setting of
seasons could increase the odds of anti-hunters suing the USFWS to
halt waterfowl hunting.

“We would no doubt be very vulnerable to legal challenges,”
Schmidt said. “The fact is that, to date, the process for setting
seasons is so scientific, it can’t be assailed. That could
change.”

The USFWS points out, too, that not only is the information from
their survey and banding programs critical to their ability to set
waterfowl seasons, but it is also essential to them, and to their
state and private partners, in properly managing waterfowl
resources. Aerial surveys, for instance, provide information to
states and provinces as to where to put their limited habitat
improvement dollars, and for the USFWS and private partners in best
spending land acquisition monies.

Just because funding is a problem now, doesn’t mean the USFWS is
standing still. Not only are the pilots and biologists hoping that
they can resume normal operations next year, they’re looking to
improve their programs. One such measure is the installation of
video cameras on the survey aircraft. It is hoped that this will be
yet another step forward in improving count accuracy.

“Technology is improving so fast,” Schmidt said, “it will change
the way we do business. By factoring in satellite imagery, mounting
video cameras in the plane to improve our precision and decrease
the pilot’s workload we may be able to eliminate the observer as a
cost-savings factor.”

It seems more than just a bit ironic that as the world’s best
and most respected wildlife survey program hits its 50th
anniversary, parts of the program’s future is in doubt. For this
year, though, the pilots and their observers are doing business as
usual, hoping that the budget problems get straightened out. After
all, they’re just too busy flying and counting to be distracted by
such things.

“I’m proud as can be to be leading this program,” Schmidt said,
“especially with guys like John Solberg. Not only are they the best
pilots in the world, they’re great biologists. We’re lucky to have
such quality people with these skills; the job they do is very
dangerous, and I’d be willing to fly anywhere with these guys.”

“They put their lives on the line for the resource they’re
unsung heroes. It would be nice for hunters to recognize these
people.”

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