State duck numbers, harvest down

By Tim

Associate Editor

St. Paul – Preliminary harvest reports from the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service support what Minnesota duck hunters suspected
since their last trip to the duck blind: The 2004 duck season was
one that often lacked one important element – ducks.

State hunters last year killed about 683,000 ducks, compared to
about 884,000 in 2003, said Steve Wilds, USFWS Region 3 chief of
the Division of Migratory Birds. That’s about a 29-percent
decrease, compared with a Mississippi Flyway-wide harvest decline
of just under 20 percent.

By comparison, the estimated duck harvests in Minnesota were
about 945,000 in 2002 and 855,000 in 2001.

Minnesota didn’t take the biggest hit, though, according to
Wilds. While the state’s duck harvest dropped by about 200,000
birds, the harvest in Louisiana decreased by more than half a
million, from about 1.3 million to 800,000. That decline also
dropped the former No. 1 state in the flyway in terms of harvest,
to No. 2 behind Arkansas. Minnesota was third.

Wilds said Minnesota’s Canada goose harvest also dropped, though
not as precipitously as that of ducks. The goose harvest of 2003
was about 287,000; in 2004 it was about 240,000, he said.

The estimated goose harvest fell from about 1.1 million to about
952,000 across the Mississippi Flyway, according to preliminary
USFWS estimates.

Ray Norrgard, DNR wetland wildlife group leader, said the
department conducts its own hunter surveys to determine the take of
not only ducks, but other species. Before the USFWS began producing
Harvest Information Program data, the USFWS and DNR harvest numbers
were pretty much in lockstep, though DNR harvest figures generally
ran higher. Now, he said, the harvest figures are much the

For example, the DNR’s estimated duck harvest for 2003 was
914,000, compared to the USFWS estimate of about 884,000.

The USFWS has used the HIP information exclusively for three
years now.

Spring breeding counts

The USFWS also recently released findings from its Waterfowl
Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. The survey found the duck
population estimate in the traditional survey area to be similar to
that of 2004, at about 32 million total ducks. That number was
about 5 percent below the long-term average.

Mallards, the most frequently counted duck, numbered about 6.8
million, down about 9 percent from 2004. Gadwall numbers were off
about 16 percent, while the wigeon count was up about 12 percent.
Green-winged teal were down about 12 percent, while bluewings were
up about 13 percent. Northern shoveler numbers increased about 28
percent. The redhead count was off about 2 percent.

Three species – pintail, canvasback, and scaup – because of
slumping populations, have drawn special attention from waterfowl

Scaup, in particular, continue to baffle biologists.

The scaup count (both greater and lesser) was down 11 percent
this year, and is down 35 percent from the long-term average.

“We’re disappointed with the scaup situation,” Wilds said. “We
keep thinking things are going to turn around for scaup, but they
keep having a hard time.”

Although there have been restrictions on scaup harvest for
several years (the daily bag in Minnesota has been three since
1999), “The harvest has not declined with these regs,” Wilds said.
He said he doubted a closed season would be considered, but that
the USFWS would be revisiting scaup harvest strategy, with input
from the flyway councils.

“It will be interesting to see what the flyways think,” he

Much study time has been dedicated to determining the cause of
the scaup decline. Most recently, the most intense research has
focused on the dietary needs of scaup and how they’re met during
the birds’ migration north in the springtime – and the effects on
nesting success.

Wilds said more research may be directed to the areas in which
the scaup nest, primarily the boreal areas of northern Canada.

For canvasbacks and pintails, Wilds said seasons haven’t yet
been determined. Hunters have been offered a 30-day “season within
a season” for pintails the past three seasons. After closing in
2002, the canvasback season reopened in 2003, and hunters that year
and last had 30-day seasons within the regular 60-day duck

The pintail count was up 17 percent this year, meaning the
season probably won’t be any more restrictive than last year, Wilds
said. The 2005 count is still 38 percent below the long-term

Canvasbacks were down 16 percent and remain 8 percent below the
long-term average.

The USFWS is expected to announce its federal waterfowl
regulations on July 29.

USFWS pond count

According to the USFWS, habitat conditions at the time of the
survey in May were highly variable, and the pond count was similar
to that of 2004.

“Nesting habitat was particularly poor in South Dakota because
of below-average precipitation resulting in degraded wetland
conditions and increased tilling and grazing of wetland margins,”
the USFWS states in its report.

Rain came later in May, but probably too late to benefit some of
the early nesting species, but to the benefit of late nesters.

“The most disappointing finding of this year’s survey is that
while May ponds were up dramatically across prairie Canada, mallard
numbers still didn’t respond accordingly,” said Rob Olson,
president of Delta Waterfowl. “The mallard population is now 37
percent lower than it was just six years ago in 1999. Hunters
wondering why they’re not seeing as many mallards as they did in
the ’90s need look no further than that number.”

Minnesota duck,

pond counts

Minnesota biologists found a decrease in the number of ducks,
but an increase in pond counts when they flew their survey areas
this spring.

Duck numbers were down 37 percent, while the pond count was up
22 percent, according to the DNR.

Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist, said both counts this
year are similar to the long-term average since 1968. However, the
duck count represents a sharp decline compared to counts in the
past 10 years.

“Total duck abundance, excluding scaup, is down 24 percent from
the 10-year average,” he said. “In fact, this year’s duck numbers
are the lowest since the drought years of the late 1980s.”

The mallard count, which is used by the USFWS in determining
season length, took a big hit, a 36-percent decline from 2004, but
similar to the long-term average. Blue-winged teal were down 45
percent this year (they’re 15-percent below the long-term average),
but that was expected this year, Cordts said.

“The 2004 blue-winged teal survey numbers were probably higher
than the actual local population,” he said. “Last year’s weather
kept many migrant blue-winged teal and other late-nesting ducks in
the state during the survey period.”

By contrast, weather delayed this year’s survey, and made it
likely that many ducks had already migrated through the state by
the time an area was surveyed.

Though wetland conditions improved as rain arrived in May, by
that time many birds had already sought out better nesting sites to
the north.


Minnesota’s Canada goose population was about 338,000, slightly
lower, but statically unchanged from 2004, according to Steve
Maxson, DNR goose specialist.

“Habitat conditions were generally improved from 2004 throughout
most of the state when we flew the survey,” Maxson said. “It
appears that production should be good this year and the statewide
population appears to be stable or increasing slightly.”

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