USFWS: Duck harvest takes a dive in 2004

By Tim Spielman Associate Editor

St. Paul — Preliminary harvest reports from the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service indicate the Michigan duck harvest last year took
a dip from that of 2003. The agency estimates the duck harvest was
about 333,000, down from about 367,000 in ’03.

Steve Wilds, USFWS Region 3 chief of the Division of Migratory
Birds, said the 9 percent harvest decline was similar to other
states in the Mississippi Flyway. The harvest in Louisiana
decreased by more than half a million birds, 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.

Dave Luukkonen, Michigan DNR research biologist at Rose Lake,
said the DNR conducts its own duck harvest hunter survey.
Preliminary survey data showed a decline in duck harvest, too, but
from about 455,000 to about 370,000 last year.

“(The harvest of) dabbling ducks was down, but there was some
really good diver hunting,” he said. The reduction in dabbling
ducks likely coincides with a decrease in the number of breeding
ducks — primarily mallards — in the state,” he said.

The harvest, though down, was still good, according to
Luukkonen. He said it was on par with the past couple years, and
still much better than the duck hunting low points of the mid to
late 1980s.

Wilds said Michigan’s Canada goose harvest also dropped, from
about 191,000 in 2003 to about 130,000 last year.

Luukkonen said that decline was expected, as the season length
in the Mississippi Valley Population zone was reduced last year
from 50 to 30 days.

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

Luukkonen said state estimates showed a drop in goose harvest
from 203,000 in 2003 to about 157,000 last year.

He said the DNR likely will propose reducing the early
(September) and late (January) season Canada goose limits from five
to three this year. It’s up to the Natural Resources Commission to
decide if that will occur.

“The population (of resident giant Canada geese, which are the
targets of the early and late hunts) is now below where we want
it,” Luukkonen said. He said the population hit a high of about
325,000 in 2000, but this spring was estimated to be about 168,000.
The DNR would like to see a population in the 175,000- to
225,000-bird range.

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
managers. 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 Michigan has been three), “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
said.

Much study time has been dedicated to determining the cause of
the scaup decline. Most recently, intense research focused on the
dietary needs of scaup and how they’re being 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
seasons.

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
average.

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. After that, Michigan hunters will have a
chance to contribute their thoughts before a fall season is set.
Some biologists expect a 60-day season offered again this year,
with special restrictions still in place for canvasbacks, pintails,
and scaup.

Luukkonen said the state has accepted a 60-day season when
offered, along with bag and season restrictions on some species.
Further, Michigan generally includes a one-hen limit on mallards,
even though the federal framework states two hens may be taken in a
daily bag.

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.”

Michigan duck counts,

wetland condition

Luukkonen said state mallards counts hit a new low this year,
with the fewest birds counted since the survey began in 1992. He
said the decline began around 1998. The mallard count this year was
about 230,000 birds. Because the decline started about the time
liberal, 60-day ducks season began, some biologists and hunters
have expressed concern about the season length, he said. However,
the decline also coincided with a decline in wetland conditions
across the survey area.

“This year, we had improved wetland conditions, so I would
expect the (duck count) to improve next year,” he said.

The Great Lakes states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all
contribute mallard counts to the USFWS that are considered when it
formulates season frameworks.

Geese

Luukkonen said he suspects the season dates to remain the same
for the early Canada goose season (Sept. 1-10 in the U.P. and
Saginaw Bay, and Sept. 1-15 in the rest of state), but said hunters
may see a bag reduction.

When the regular season rolls around, hunters usually are
harvesting migrants from the Mississippi Valley Population or the
Southern James Bay Population.

MVP nesting numbers were up slightly this year, but Luukkonen
expects the 30-day season to be in place in the two-thirds of the
state where these birds are harvested. A 30-day season likely will
remain in place in the SJBP areas.

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