Washington – Continental duck populations dropped slightly from last year, but are significantly above their long-term averages, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A 3-percent drop in overall duck numbers – 42 million last year, 40.9 million this year – isn't bad, said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist.
"Especially continentally, the status of most duck species last year was good, and, in some cases, fairly close to record-high populations," he said. "Overall, it was pretty good across the board."
A number of species saw population increases, including northern pintails (up 9 percent, from 3.2 million to 3.5 million), redheads (up 2 percent, from 1.04 million to 1.06 million), scaup (up 2 percent, from 4.17 million to 4.24 million), and green-winged teal (up 1 percent, from 3.44 million to 3.48 million).
Blue-winged teal saw the only significant decrease (14 percent), from 7.4 million to 6.3 million.
Canvasbacks fell by 12 percent, from about 660,000 to 585,000. Northern shovelers fell by 7 percent, from 4.4 million to 4.1 million. Gadwalls fell 3 percent, from 3.1 million to 3 million; American wigeon fell 2 percent, from 2.5 million to 2.4 million; and mallards fell by 1 percent, from 8.5 million to 8.4 million.
All species were above their long-term averages, with the exception of scaup (down 16 percent), northern pintails (down 13 percent), and American wigeon (down 7 percent).
"These are encouraging numbers as we see most species at or above their long-term averages," said Dale Humburg, Ducks Unlimited chief biologist, in a news release. "The habitat conditions in many regions should support a good breeding effort."
The survey includes more than 2 million square miles across the continent's primary duck nesting grounds – north-central and northeastern United States, south-central, eastern, and northern Canada, and Alaska. Results of the survey are used to set frameworks for waterfowl hunting.
The total number of ponds surveyed in the United States and the prairie portion of Canada was 6.7 million, which is similar to last year, but 34 percent above the long-term average.
Of the ponds, about 3.7 million were in Canada, which is similar to last year and the long-term average, while about 2.9 million were in the United States, which was similar to last year but 87 percent above the long-term average.
Still, more birds settled on the U.S. side of the breeding grounds – 13.9 million – than did across the border in Canada – 10.6 million, according to Delta Waterfowl.
"That's pretty remarkable when you consider that two-thirds of the Prairie Pothole Region exists on the Canadian side of the border," said Louisiana State University's Dr. Frank Rohwer, who is Delta's scientific director. "Delta has been saying for years that Canada is broken, and the latest survey numbers once again bear that out."
While breeding duck population numbers influence the fall flight and what hunters see, it's too early to say exactly what the fall flight will look like.
Last year, for example, there were strong wetland and duck numbers, but many hunters said the waterfowl season didn't live up to their expectations, according to Delta Waterfowl.
"The best explanation is the ducks that settled in the Dakotas and Montana a year ago weren't as productive as they were in the 1990s because there was a lot less nesting cover than there was in the '90s," said John Devney, Delta's senior vice president. "The Dakotas have lost close to 2 million acres of grass since 1999 – that's more than 3,100 square miles – and another 2 million acres of CRP are scheduled to expire by 2012.
"Research conducted by the (USFWS) showed that upland-nesting ducks need large blocks of grass to produce at population-expanding levels, but we're losing (CRP) and native prairie acres at an alarming rate. Not only are we losing grass, but also the high-quality wetlands embedded in those acres.
"The take-home message is that the U.S. side of the region carried Canada during the wet cycle of the 1990s, but if the U.S. keeps losing habitat, who's going to pick up the slack?"