Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

Duck numbers dip, but scaup increase

Bemidji, Minn. – Just about the time Midwestern duck hunters
began to fret about the possibility of a reduced bag for bluebills
this fall – and the associated issues the might arise with such a
reduction (duck ID issues, etc.) – scaup appear to have scored a
minor rebound.

Of the major duck species, scaup showed the greatest population
increase, according to the recently released duck breeding
population survey, conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
and Canadian Wildlife Service. Scaup numbers increased 8 percent
this spring, but remain about 27 percent below the long-term
average, according to the survey.

Overall duck numbers were down about 9 percent, but 11 percent
above the long-term average, the survey showed. Mallard numbers
decreased from an estimated 8.3 million last year to 7.7 million in
2008. That’s about a 7-percent decline, but is still 3 percent
above the long-term average.

What does that mean for duck hunters Perhaps that they won’t be
faced with a reduced scaup bag limit this fall, or worse, the
elimination of a scaup season altogether.

The scaup population seems now to be hovering in a grey area
between moderate and restrictive regulations, the result of a
recently adopted USFWS scaup harvest strategy – one opposed by the
Mississippi Flyway and waterfowling groups, including Delta
Waterfowl, which believed a one-bird scaup limit (versus two, which
has been the case for several years) would be a death-knell for
diver duck hunting.

“It’s just a number on a table at this point,” Steve Cordts, DNR
waterfowl specialist, said of the scaup survey information. “We
don’t know what it really means.”

According to the new USFWS scaup management strategy, the scaup
season (bag limit and season length) could vary at different
population levels, with pond count considerations. At different
breeding population levels, the USFWS has associated “optimal
harvest levels,” said Jim Kelley, Mississippi Flyway representative
for the USFWS in Minneapolis.

For example, if the breeding population is at 3.75 million, the
optimal harvest goal is 250,000 scaup, he said. In 2006, with
regulations in place similar to last year, duck hunters nationwide
harvested about 280,000 bluebills.

Cordts said the 8-percent increase really means the scaup
population probably is similar to last year. The survey includes an
error margin of plus or minus 200,000.

Ducks Unlimited said in a press release that scaup numbers
“appear to have stabilized at similar levels for the last 8 years
at 3.7 million in 2008, similar to the 3.5 million surveyed in

What’s it mean for duck hunters – diver hunters in particular
Cordts said a best-case scenario would mean another 60-day,
two-bird scaup season, the way it’s been for the past several


When flyway meetings begin later this month, Cordts expects
canvasback ducks to be a “major” issue. That’s because “cans” in
the breeding survey dropped from about 865,000 last year to an
estimated 489,000 this year, a 44-percent decline, and 14 percent
below the long-term average.

The USFWS canvasback management strategy considers the spring
breeding count, habitat conditions and what it estimates the
following spring’s breeding numbers to be, along with a target
harvest, to set the fall canvasback season. In the past few years,
hunters have several variations on the can-hunting theme; last
year, the season was the full 60 days in the Mississippi Flyway,
with a bag limit of two canvasbacks. But past years also have
included partial, 30-day seasons, as well as a full closure in

From the mid-1920s until 2001, there were 20-day can seasons in
the state, and from the mid-1980s until the early 1990s, the can
season was closed.

Cordts said the USFWS recommends full closure of the canvasback
season if the estimated breeding population the following spring is
less than 500,000.

“My opinion is, not to overreact and close the season,” he

Cordts said he was surprised that canvasback numbers took such a
dive, and redhead numbers increased slightly. He called the redhead
population increase “one shining positive in the survey

But, Cordts added, canvasbacks and redheads share much of their
breeding ranges, and the divergence of population changes has him

“This is one of the few years that I’m aware of … where they’ve
(populations) done the opposite thing,” he said.

Minnesota – along with California – is a top harvester of
canvasbacks; in 2006, Minnesota hunters took 13,000 birds.


Pintails, too, declined significantly in this year’s breeding
survey. The population is down an estimated 22 percent from last
year, and is 36 percent below the long-term average, at about 2.6
million birds.

DU biologist Dale Humburg said poor pintail numbers likely are
the result of drought in the north-central United States and
prairie Canada, in the core pintail breeding area.

In recent years, hunters have experienced partial seasons for
pintails, too. But last year, hunters were allowed a daily bag of
one pintail, and the season was open the full 60 days.

“I don’t think (the population) is down enough to warrant a
partial season,” Cordts said.


Besides scaup and redheads, another gainer in the survey this
year was the green-winged teal, whose population was up 3 percent,
and up 57 percent over the long-term average.

Blue-winged teal numbers fell off about 1 percent, but remained
45 percent above their long-term average. And gadwall, despite a
population that dipped 19 percent from last year, remained 56
percent above the long-term average.

Northern shoveler numbers dropped 23 percent, but are an
estimated 56 percent above the long-term average. American wigeon
numbers were down 11 percent from last year and 5 percent below the
long-term average.

According to Delta Waterfowl, “Dry conditions across the prairie
breeding grounds took a toll on mallard numbers. The eastern Dakota
mallard population was down 24 percent from last year, Montana and
the western Dakotas slipped 36 percent, and Saskatchewan was down
12 percent. Increases in mallard numbers were seen in the ‘bush’
regions of the northern provinces, suggesting the birds over-flew
the prairies.”

However, Delta said the federal Conservation Reserve Program
continues to boost mallard numbers above historical averages.

“The mallard breeding population across the duck factory is
still above the long-term average because of CRP, but at the rate
we’re losing CRP, it’s going to be difficult to maintain those
levels,” said Delta President Rob Olson. In the eastern Dakotas,
the mallard population is 75 percent above the long-term average,
despite a 16-percent drop in wetlands.

Several meetings of flyway and USFWS officials will occur later
this month, and Kelley said he expects the Fish and Wildlife
Service to offer duck-hunting frameworks in early August.

Share on Social


Hand-Picked For You

Related Articles