Thursday, January 26th, 2023
Thursday, January 26th, 2023

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Louisiana hunters worked up about bag limits

New Orleans (AP) – Mottled ducks have seldom whipped up a lot of
passion among Louisiana waterfowlers.

They are resident birds, as common in local marshes as egrets
and seagulls, and about as exotic. They don’t evoke the sense of
wonder as the appearance of seasonal migrants such as blue-winged
teal, pintails and mallards. And let’s face it, those visitors
arrive wearing a dazzling rainbow of colored feathers. Mottled
ducks are wall flowers, wrapped in dull brown. Not a duck to get
excited about.

Until about two weeks ago. That’s when Louisiana hunters learned
the season bag limit on mottled ducks is being reduced from three
to one daily, primarily because the species is tanking in Texas.
Passions erupted soon after.

The population of mottled ducks, a resident species in Louisiana
and Texas, have been on a steady decline for many years, prompting
a reduction in bag limits for this hunting season.

“Oh, I’ve heard from plenty of hunters,” said Larry Reynolds,
waterfowl study leader for the state Department of Wildlife and
Fisheries. “Most of them are not happy. They basically feel like
Louisiana is being penalized because of problems in Texas. But it’s
not a simple story.

With ducks, it never is. But I’ll try to make some sense of
this.

The Duck

Mottled ducks are year-round residents in the coastal plain
wetlands of the Gulf of Mexico, primarily in Louisiana and Texas,
with a smaller population in Florida. Genetic studies show the
Louisiana-Texas population is the same animal, the Florida
population is different.

The rice agricultural lands in southwest Louisiana and coastal
Texas long have been the most productive habitat for the
species.

Banding studies show there is some travel between the two
groups. But what started in 1997 (the first year of the study) with
about 12 percent to 14 percent of birds going in each direction,
recently has shown a big shift in movement primarily from Texas to
Louisiana. In 2007, the last year for which figures are available,
33 percent of mottled ducks banded in Texas were recovered later in
Louisiana. Only three percent of the birds banded in Louisiana were
recovered in Texas.

The Numbers

Since 1973, the midwinter surveys show the Texas population has
been in a general decline, dropping from about 75,000 to around
25,000. The same surveys show the Louisiana population declining in
1994, bouncing from a high of almost 175,000 in 1993 to a low of
around 40,000 in 1998 to about 55,000 in 2008.

But in the past year, the Louisiana numbers have increased some.
Harvest figures showed Louisiana hunters killed 66,000 mottled
ducks last year, and Texas hunters killed only 12,000.

What the numbers show is the Texas population seems to be
falling off, but the Louisiana population, relatively stable
recently, is also slowly falling.

The likely cause: The declining acres of rice being planted in
both states.

“That loss in the rice agriculture is much greater in Texas, as
is overall developmental pressure on the coastal wetlands there,”
Reynolds said.

Research to date has turned up no signs of disease, or migration
of the species to new locations out of the traditional habitat
zone. So the habitat issue would seem to be the only logical
explanation for the steeper decline in Texas, Reynolds said.

“There are some caveats, of course,” he said. “Those banding
results could indicate that Louisiana’s population is being kept
artificially high by the immigration of birds from Texas.”

The Feds and the Regs

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been watching the numbers
tumble with growing concern, and for the past two years has
pressured the Mississippi Flyway to impose harvest restrictions.
Originally the Service wanted a 30 percent cut in the kill,
something that could only be accomplished by closing the season on
mottled ducks entirely, Reynolds said.

The Louisiana biologist said he fought those extreme measures
because he didn’t think they were warranted. He got the Service to
approve his suggestion for a one-bird-per-day limit for the 60-day
season, which is expected to lead to a 19 percent reduction in the
kill.

Meanwhile Texas, which is where the mottled duck is in serious
trouble, also will have the same daily limit – and because that
state is in the Central Flyway, it will have a 68-day season on the
species.

Naturally, this seems unfair in Cajun country. Why are Louisiana
hunters paying for a shortage of mottled ducks in Texas, especially
if the species is hardly migratory?

Because the Service always uses uniform regulations for
continental populations of a single species, Reynolds said.

“It’s the same reason California hunters, who are swamped with
pintail every fall, have the same daily limit as hunters in
Louisiana,” he said. “The Service has always felt the right way to
manage a single continental population of any animal is with
uniform regulations.”

Of course, that begs the question: What if the bird continues to
crater in Texas but rebounds in Louisiana? Will we continue to see
restrictive bag limits on what amounts to a species that only
occurs here?

Reynolds had no answer. But he knows he may need one by this
time next year.

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