USFWS explains scaup, can decisions

Bemidji, Minn. – The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a letter
the Minnesota DNR received early this month, has responded to the
state agency’s concerns about bluebill and canvasback seasons in
place this fall.

DNR_Commissioner Mark Holsten in early August sent a letter to
USFWS Director Dale Hall. In the letter, Holsten wrote of the
state’s concern about “recent decisions made by the Service that
will greatly impact diving duck opportunities in our state and
could threaten the future of this important tradition.”

Two of the decisions: A 60-day scaup season, with a two-bird
limit for 20 days and a one-bird limit the remainder of the season;
and a closed canvasback season.

Holsten, in his letter, wrote of the state’s support for a
two-scaup bag limit for the entire season, which the Mississippi
Flyway Council recommended. Holsten also asked the USFWS to
consider a Mississippi Flyway proposal for a one-canvasback

The flyway based that limit on a proposed strategy under which
the canvasback limit would be two a day when the population is
above 800,000 and one per day when it’s between 400,000 and
800,000. Under that strategy, the season would be closed when the
can population is less than 400,000.

The flyway submitted that strategy when the canvasback
population was at a “record high,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl
staff specialist. That was before the 2008 spring breeding
population survey showed a drop in can numbers.

The USFWS, though, wasn’t swayed.

“Since the 1994-95 hunting season, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service (Service) has managed the harvest of canvasbacks using a
model-based strategy that determines an allowable harvest by
considering not only the current year’s breeding population, but
also information on the current year’s breeding habitat conditions
that impact reproduction, and the expected canvasback harvest
resulting from a given season length,” Hall wrote in his letter to
Holsten. “The Service believes this approach has served us, the
hunters, and the canvasback population reasonably well over the
past 14 years. A threshold strategy, such as the one suggested by
the Mississippi Flyway Council, does not consider some of these
important factors.”

During the past eight years, the canvasback season has varied
from fully closed to 60 days and two canvasbacks. During those
eight years, the canvasback population has been about 15 percent
higher than the average, Cordts said.

“In the duck world, usually average is good,” he said.


By the time the state received Hall’s letter, the duck season
was about halfway done. State officials had expressed concerns
about how a one-scaup limit would affect the state’s diving duck
hunters, given the difficulty of telling bluebills and ring-necked
ducks apart on the wing.

“Relative to peak population levels observed during the survey
history, scaup have experienced a prolonged and dramatic decline
not experienced by other species,” Hall wrote. “Generally, as a
population declines in size, so does the harvest potential for that
population. We have never maintained that harvest restrictions will
lead to immediate increases in scaup; however, we remain concerned
about the population’s ability to sustain current harvest

“While the human dimension aspects of the impact of restrictions
on diving duck hunting cannot be ignored, we believe the actions we
took this year with regard to scaup regulations were

The regulation-setting cycle for next year’s waterfowl season
begins early next year. The USFWS has said it would review and
explore how to make improvements to the scaup and canvasback
harvest strategies.

The Mississippi Flyway will convene in February, and Cordts said
the flyway likely will make recommendations related to scaup and
cans at that point.

“I can’t see anything that would really change what we did last
summer, as far as our recommendations,” Cordts said. “I can’t
imagine the Service, if they didn’t allow them this year (would
allow them next year). Maybe, but it doesn’t seem very likely.”

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