Thursday, February 9th, 2023
Thursday, February 9th, 2023

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Bluebill bag likely to be restricted this fall

Ohio might propose a 45-day season

Bemidji, Minn. – Absent an unexpected rise in the estimated
scaup breeding population, bluebill hunters this fall will see more
restrictive regulations.

In Ohio, waterfowl hunters could be looking at a season within a
season on bluebills, said Dave Sherman, a waterfowl biologist with
the DNR Division of Wildlife.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Service Regulations
Committee recently adopted a new scaup harvest strategy that
federal officials say will ensure harvest levels are such that the
declining scaup population can sustain them.

“Hunters are among the nation’s foremost conservationists – they
give back far more than they take,” USFWS Director H. Dale Hall
said in a news release. “As sustainable hunting is the cornerstone
of wildlife management, we must prepare to take action to conserve
declining scaup populations to ensure we can provide hunting
opportunities in future seasons. We are proud to have a strategy to
ensure harvest regulations are in concert with the status of scaup
populations.”

Scaup populations in 2007 were the third-lowest on record, and
recent population estimates have been more than 30 percent below
the 55-year average. The largest decline has been during the past
25 years, according to the USFWS.

While the SRC decision doesn’t immediately change the scaup
regulations – those are set later this summer – it does change the
model by which allowable harvest is figured.

“The bottom line for hunters is they’ll get one-scaup bag limits
from here on out unless things dramatically change,” said Dr. Frank
Rohwer, scientific director for Delta Waterfowl, who was at last
week’s meetings. “Don’t be a bit surprised to see a one-bird limit.
It almost undoubtedly will happen.”

Delta opposed the adoption of the harvest strategy, as did some
of the flyways, including the Central and Mississippi.

The harvest strategy will be used to determine bag limits and
season lengths for scaup in relation to the current population
estimate, according to the USFWS. The 2008 estimate is expected to
be released in the near future.

“If you’re a scaup hunter, you better hope we counted a lot of
them,” said Steve Cordts, a waterfowl specialist for the Minnesota
DNR and committee member on the Mississippi Flyway Council.

For the past three years, the scaup population estimates have
been between 3 million and 3.5 million birds. Ohio hunters have
been able to take two scaup a day for the full 60-day season.

Hunters should have an idea about this fall’s regulations when
the USFWS releases its scaup population estimate this month.

“If it’s less than 3.5 million or so, then we’re looking at
restrictions. If it’s above that we would have an option of
continuing with a full season and two scaup a day,” Cordts
said.

In restrictive season scenarios, the bag limit could be reduced
to one scaup a day, there could be a 45-day season with a two-bird
bag, or other regulations below the current (in the Mississippi
Flyway) 60 days and two birds a day. The Mississippi Flyway hasn’t
discussed yet what it might recommend after its meetings next
month.

What Ohio is likely to propose to the USFWS is a 45-day season
on scaup while retaining a two-bird daily bag, predicts Sherman.
Last year, hunters could kill two bluebills a day for the entire
60-day duck season.

“I wouldn’t imagine that our big-water hunters would go through
all the trouble for one bird,” Sherman said, referring to layout
hunting on Lake Erie in particular.

Up until 1987, Ohio had a special, 15-day season on scaup with a
daily bag limit of five birds. The daily bag on bluebills stood at
six until 2001 when it was cut in half to three. The two-bird bag
has been in effect since the 2005 season.

While hunting hasn’t been fingered as the cause of the scaup
population decline, the USFWS says it wants to ensure harvest is
“commensurate” with the ability of scaup to sustain harvest, given
the population is in decline. Some theories hold that habitat
changes are driving the population decline, but there has been no
research to show conclusively that one thing or another has caused
the decline.

“The harvest rates are so low on scaup, in my view, that you’re
just going to watch the population decline whether you hunt them or
not,” Rohwer said.

Cordts has another concern, too – that females drive the
population, but scaup harvest is largely skewed toward males. About
two-thirds of the scaup shot in any season are males, he said.

“You can reduce overall harvest, but it’s unlikely to have a big
impact just from basic population dynamics,” he said. “That’s
somewhat troubling.”

There could be a sex-specific hunt, like what is allowed for
mallards, “but how effective or not effective that is, is
debatable,” Cordts said.

Opponents of the new harvest strategy maintain that it could
hurt hunting in places where ring-necked ducks, which are difficult
to tell apart from scaup when they’re in flight, are an important
part of what hunters shoot each season.

A one-scaup limit would put hunters at a disadvantage, said
Delta President Rob Olson.

“If, for example, a hunter shoots a drake bluebill, he or she
may be forced to forgo the rest of their day in the marsh, rather
than risk taking another scaup and being in violation of any new
regulations,” he said. “Scaup are a coveted waterfowl species for
many hunters. We don’t want to see them relegated to the status of
‘mistake’ bird.”

Depending on what happens with scaup populations, hunters may
feel the effects of the recent SRC decision for years to come, not
just this fall, Cordts said.

That’s because if the scaup breeding population were to fall to
2.75 million birds, full season closures would follow.

“That’s my biggest fear,” he said. “That’s full closure – no
take at all.”

Ohio Outdoor News Editor Mike Moore contributed to this
story.

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