Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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‘Can’ estimate of 500,000 would allow one bird per day

Stevens Point, Wis. – Federal biologists are going to have see
at least 500,000 canvasbacks in the spring population estimate in
order to offer Midwestern hunters a one-bird bag limit during the
2009 season.

Want to see a “two-can” limit?

Not unless federal biologists first hit a population estimate of
725,000 canvasbacks on the breeding grounds.

That news reached Wisconsin waterfowl hunters in early March at
the annual Wisconsin Waterfowl Hunters Conference in Stevens Point.
It was delivered by Jim Kelley, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service in Minneapolis.

The USFWS has taken heat from members the Mississippi Flyway
Council for closing the “can” season in 2008 and drastically
curbing scaup limits.

Kelley told conference-goers that, in setting rules, biologists
must look at where the populations will be each May. Kelley said
the flyway’s annual canvasback harvest had been up around 90,000
birds prior to 2001, but from 2001 to 2005 the average harvest in
the flyway was 13,117. In Wisconsin, the average harvest was about
2,400 birds per season.

“The goal is to look at the breeding population (in May), so we
look at this year’s estimate adjusted by summer survival and the
number of birds produced in the summer minus the expected harvest
and then predict … what next year’s population will be,” Kelley
said. “Our goal is to have at least 500,000 birds or more next
spring.”

If the prediction for a breeding population this spring is less
than 500,000 canvasbacks, the USFWS will close the season.

If more than 500,000 birds are estimated, the USFWS will allow
one bird in the bag. For a two-bird bag limit, the threshold must
be 725,000 canvasbacks on the breeding grounds.

For scaup, the threshold for an open season is a population of
about 2.5 million birds. Below that, and the season will be
closed.

Kelley said one problem with scaup is that they nest in the
Northwest Territories, and it’s difficult to monitor bird numbers.
Although abundant, their population pales in comparison to what it
used to be, and that is the reason for concern, he said.

From 2001 to 2005, the average harvest in the Mississippi Flyway
was 143,645 scaup, which is about 52 percent of the entire harvest
in the nation. Wisconsin normally harvests about 12,174 scaup.

“The Fish and Wildlife Service has a mandate to manage the
resource, but we also have social considerations,” Kelley said. “We
make our recommendations based on the biology, but the
administrators must take into consideration other aspects.”

Although the harvest itself has not been responsible for the
decline in scaup populations, as the population has declined the
harvest rate has gone up, and the USFWS is concerned that scaup may
be at the limit of its harvest capacity.

Randy Smith, biologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey,
looks at the controversy over scaup and canvasback numbers from the
state perspective. He said the concern is that scaup populations
have been declining for the past 30 years, while other populations
have increased with better water conditions.

Overharvest is not the reason for this, he said, but some
possibilities may be migration changes, contaminants, habitat
quality, and decreased productivity.

The trend is of concern in Wisconsin, because 40 percent of the
continental scaup population migrates through the Mississippi
Flyway, and there is a tradition of diver hunting in northern
states.

Although populations are declining, scaup are still the third
most abundant duck species on the continent, with an estimated 3.8
million birds. The harvest is not overly significant, and the
population has been relatively stable over the past 8 years. Smith
noted some inconsistencies: Ring-necked ducks have an estimated
population of 1.2 million and the harvest is 500,000; the harvest
percentage is 43 percent. However, there are 3.8 million scaup and
a harvest estimate of 410,000 – a harvest percentage of only 11
percent.

There appears to be a lot more to learn about the breeding
habitat of scaup, and there are concerns that if bag limits are
reduced to one bird a day, avid diver hunters will quit hunting
them, and take with them support for diving ducks.

For canvasbacks, the population estimate decreased by 44 percent
in 2008 and some biologists question if the numbers are
correct.

Although the season was closed in 2008, the population count was
still the fifth highest on record. And redhead numbers, which often
parallel canvasback numbers, increased to a record high.

Flyway notes

DNR Migratory Bird Ecologist Kent Van Horn had returned from the
Mississippi Flyway Council Technical Section winter meetings just
in time for the state waterfowl conference. He said Wisconsin last
year ranked second in the number of waterfowlers (83,300), with
Texas number one (94,100). Minnesota was at 77,200.

“This shows a major heritage in this state, but it also offers a
major challenge to management with so many hunters,” he said.

The state harvest averages 38 percent mallards, 17 percent wood
ducks, 10 percent green-winged teal, 8 percent blue-winged teal,
and less than 4 percent for each of the other species. About 70
percent of the mallards shot in the state come from the Great Lakes
region, which shows the importance of state habitat programs to
produce local birds.

Wisconsin harvested 24,200 Canada geese in the 2008 early
season, 41,200 in the Exterior Zone and 12,500 in Horicon.

Canada goose management is evolving, according to Van Horn. In
previous years, Canada geese were managed by populations that breed
in different areas of Canada. This came about prior to the large
increase in giant Canadas. Currently, “giant” numbers are
increasing, and during the regular season in Wisconsin, about half
of the harvested geese are giants. Previously, the majority of
Canada geese shot during the regular season were Mississippi Valley
Population geese that breed near Hudson Bay.

“There is a theory that if we have abundant populations and
hunters are shooting both populations, there is a buffer for the
(MVP geese) and we should be able to liberalize the seasons and not
impact the interior populations,” Van Horn said.

Giant Canadas used to make up less than 20 percent of the state
harvest but now are up to 50 percent of the harvest.

States and provinces are trying “stable regulation periods” to
see if there is an impact. Wisconsin just finished the second year
of a 5-year stabilized regulation period and is watching the
harvest to look for impact on populations.

States are allowed 107 days to hunt migratory birds, and
currently, including the early September Canada goose season, most
of Wisconsin has 100 days and the Horicon Zone has 107.

Regarding scaup and canvasback duck seasons, last year the USFWS
allowed 40 days with one scaup in the bag and 20 days with two
scaup. Van Horn said the USFWS has offered a 45-day season with a
two-bird limit and 15 days with one bird, if there are no changes
in populations.

“It is better than what we had last year, and our thought is
that scaup are still abundant and anything more restrictive is
unnecessary,” Van Horn said, adding that scaup banding data are
needed to know more about their numbers, but they breed in the
remote north, and banding is difficult.

Canvasback regs caused controversy as the bag limit was two
birds daily two years ago and the season was closed in 2008. The
breeding population was 864,000 in 2007, with good pond numbers,
when the bag limit was two birds per day, and the estimated harvest
was 125,000 birds.

In 2008, the spring breeding population dropped significantly to
488,700, and pond numbers were down, forcing the hunting season to
be closed that fall.

“This really didn’t make sense to many of us biologically,
because we know that 40 percent of the canvasbacks didn’t just
disappear from one year to the next and we didn’t shoot them all,”
Van Horn said.

Van Horn said the USFWS has incorporated the option of a
two-bird bag into the season framework, and he hopes there are good
pond numbers this spring.

“The breeding duck survey that is conducted across North America
is one of the most comprehensive, long-standing wildlife-monitoring
programs in the world; however, it is best applied to the more
abundant ducks,” Van Horn said. “Mallards are in the millions,
while canvasbacks are in the hundreds of thousands.”

Van Horn reported that a Sandhill Crane Management Plan is being
prepared for the eastern United States. Cranes are harvested in
many western states, but not in the east. Populations are
increasing, and there is concern about crop damage, so the plan is
under way to set a course for the future.

This year, Wisconsin will host the summer meeting of the
Mississippi Flyway Council, July 18-24 in Manitowoc.

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