‘Liberal’ duck season on tap

By Tim Spielman Associate Editor

Lansing — There are a few more hoops through which a duck season
proposal must yet jump, but it appears Michigan waterfowlers will
again this year be granted a 60-day “liberal” season framework.

At a recent Mississippi Flyway meeting in Missouri, flyway
officials from their respective states recommended the 60-day
season; federal biologists concurred with that plan, and last week,
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made it official.

Dave Luukkonen, research biologist for the state DNR, and a
flyway representative, said the plan must be approved by the state
Natural Resources Commission.

There will be some minor changes to this year’s season,
including a full season with a one-bird limit for canvasbacks and
pintails, two species for which in the past there have been
“seasons within seasons” because of low numbers.

Last week the USFWS also decided to retain a two-bird bag for
scaup.

Flyway officials had recommended continuing a two-bird bag,
while federal migratory bird management biologists had recommended
dropping the bag to one.

Though the scaup population showed another decline during
federal breeding surveys this year, the population is still
relatively strong, at about 3.2 million birds – far more than other
species with more liberal harvest allowances.

“Even though (the scaup population) declined, we felt it could
sustain the harvest,” Luukkonen said.

“We felt a one-bird limit could be detrimental to diving duck
hunting,” he said. A one-bird limit could reduce interest in diver
hunting, and further, duck identification could become an issue
with a one-scaup limit.

Flyway officials from the various states also said further study
was needed to determine if a smaller bag limit for scaup would aid
its recovery. They pointed out that even with significant reduction
in scaup harvest during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the
duck season was reduced to 30 days, the continental scaup
population had further declined.

“Very likely the scaup decline is because of other reasons (than
harvest),” Luukkonen said.

Paul Schmidt, USFWS assistant director for migratory birds, said
the service decided to follow the flyway recommendation, even
though scaup numbers were at an all-time low.

“We’re concerned about habitat conditions in the (scaup)
breeding area,” he said during a July 28 press conference.

Luukkonen said the state would once again have a one-hen mallard
bag limit, even though the liberal framework allows a bag of two
hen mallards.

“We want to be a little more conservative to protect local
mallards,” he said.

The NRC will have the final say at its August meeting regarding
the season openers, and season splits, but Luukkonen suspects it
will greatly resemble last year’s, when there were two season
openers – Oct. 1 in the North and Middle zones, and Oct. 15 in the
South Zone – along with season splits in the Middle and South
zones. He said hunter surveys indicate southern waterfowlers like
the opportunity in late December and January to hunt ducks; last
year, a two-day season was held in the south, Dec. 31 and Jan.
1.

Liberal seasons near end?

Following the USFWS proposal for a liberal season, Ducks
Unlimited said hunters should enjoy them while they last – which
may not be much longer, because of loss of habitat.

“Continued loss of critical habitat threatens to reduce the
capacity of prairie breeding areas to produce the ducks necessary
for liberal hunting seasons in the future,” DU said in a press
release last week.

Grassland conversion is one of the greatest areas of concern,
according to DU.

Goose hunting

Healthy populations of resident giant Canada geese, as well as
the Mississippi Valley Population and Southern James Bay Population
of Canada geese could result in increased goose-hunting
opportunities this year in Michigan.

MVP geese migrate through the Upper Peninsula, the northern
Lower Peninsula, and the western half of the L.P. SJBP geese are
hunted primarily in the southeastern Lower.

“The prospects for goose hunting are excellent this year,”
Luukkonen said, stating that local numbers are up, as are those of
the migrating flocks. “It was a good production year for the MVPs
and SJBPs.”

The regular goose season last year consisted of 28 days of
hunting.

This year, Luukkonen said DNR officials are recommending 50 days
in the zones where MVPs are hunted, and 30 days in the southeastern
Lower, for SJBP geese. The limit likely will be two geese; the
season dates have not yet been established for the regular season,
nor the late goose-hunting season. The early goose season gets
under way on Sept. 1, with a bag limit of three geese this year.
The DNR attempts to maintain a resident Canada goose population
between 175,000 and 225,000.

As always, there will be exceptions to the goose-hunting rules
in special goose management units.

Duck harvest estimates

While state duck harvest estimates for 2005 haven’t yet been
determined, federal preliminary estimates indicate the harvest fell
last year in Michigan, from about 333,000 in 2004 to about 284,000,
a 15-percent decline. It was the third consecutive year of reduced
duck harvest, since state hunters took about 417,000 in 2002.

While state harvest estimates are usually somewhat different
than those of the Fish and Wildlife Service, Luukkonen said the
numbers have followed the same track, for the most part.

Luukkonen said the reduced harvest wasn’t unexpected; much of
the harvest in Michigan consists of locally reared mallards, and
Great Lakes region breeding numbers have been down.

According to the USFWS’ preliminary estimates, mallards again
dominated the bag in Michigan. Nearly half of the estimated take –
about 135,000 ducks – were mallards.

Wood ducks made up about 11 percent of the harvest, followed by
green-winged teal (7 percent), and bufflehead (6 percent).

Flyway-wide, the duck harvest was an estimated 5.27 million
birds in 2005, down from about 5.5 million in 2004.

Arkansas led the way in duck harvest with an estimated 1.08
million birds shot (about 16.7 per hunter during the season),
followed by Louisiana at about 878,000 ducks harvested (about 18.2
per hunter during the season).

Michigan hunters averaged about seven ducks harvested during the
season. The USFWS estimated the number of duck hunters dropped from
43,000 in 2004 to 41,000 last year in the state.

The USFWS estimated the Michigan goose harvest at about 225,000
in 2005, down from 271,000 in 2004.

Other flyway meeting notes

  • Among the discussion at the flyway meeting last month was more
    discourse regarding motorized spinning-wing decoys. Two state in
    the Mississippi Flyway have bans on the devices – Arkansas has a
    total ban; Minnesota has a ban during the first week of the
    season.

In Michigan, Luukkonen said, the regulation of such devices is
left to the NRC. He said there have been concerns raised in the
past regarding spinning-wing decoy use on state-managed areas,
where the decoys create competition.

“At this point, they’re not regulated on state lands or managed
areas, but there’s ongoing discussion,” he said.

Hunter surveys have indicated just under half of Michigan
hunters use the motorized decoys at least part of the time while
hunting ducks.

  • State flyway officials decided to draft a letter to be sent to
    the USFWS regarding a proposal by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and
    Wildlife Commission to allow a 40-bird bag limit and baiting for
    tribal members on ceded territory.

The letter will express members’ concerns regarding baiting, and
the possibility it could exclude state-licensed hunters from
certain areas, because of placed bait.

In Michigan, Luukkonen said state officials currently are
working with tribes to better define ceded territory.

As for state-licensed duck hunters, Luukkonen said they “don’t
have to be sitting right on the bait pile to be in violation of
baiting rules.”

The USFWS has yet to rule on the GLIFWC proposal.

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