MN: Across the continent, waterfowl numbers increase
St. Paul – Across the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's duck breeding populations survey area, things are ducky. And wet.
According to the agency's 2011 report on populations, total duck abundance (45.6 million) jumped 11 percent from last year, and was 35 percent higher than the average from 1955 to 2010.
There were 8.1 million ponds counted in the U.S. and Canada, which is 22 percent above last year's estimate, and 62 percent above the long-term average.
According to Ducks Unlimited, the survey marks the second time pond counts have exceeded 8 million, and the fifth time total duck counts have exceeded 40 million.
"The (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) has reported nearly unprecedented waterfowl habitat conditions and breeding duck levels for 2011 – the best in several years for some areas," Dale Humburg, DU's chief scientist, said in a news release. "Full wetlands and good upland cover will likely support a strong breeding effort, particularly in the prairies this year."
The survey showed that just two species – American wigeon and scaup – were below their long-term averages. On the other hand, blue-winged teal, northern shoveler, and redhead duck populations hit record highs, and pintail numbers were above 4 million for the first time since 1980.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses the population estimates as part of its process for setting the year's duck-hunting regulations.
"I encourage everyone to celebrate this year's good news as we recommit to the long-term conservation of waterfowl and waterfowl habitat," Humburg said. "In light of a very favorable breeding ground report, it's still quite a while before we can put out the decoys. We will have to monitor how broods fare this summer and what impact summer flooding has on many migration and wintering areas before we get better insight into what to expect this fall."
Following is how the 10 species reported in the survey fared:
• Mallards, 9.2 million – 9 percent above 2010, 22 percent above long-term average.
• Gadwall, 3.3 million – 9 percent above 2010, 80 percent above long-term average.
• American wigeon, 2.1 million – 14 percent below 2010, 20 percent below long-term average.
• Green-winged teal, 2.9 million – 17 percent below 2010, 47 percent above long-term average.
• Blue-winged teal, 8.9 million – 41 percent above 2010, 91 percent above long-term average.
• Northern pintails, 4.4 million – 26 percent above 2010, 10 percent above long-term average.
• Northern shoveler, 4.6 million – 14 percent above 2010, 98 percent above long-term average.
• Redhead, 1.4 million – 27 percent above 2010, 106 percent above long-term average.
• Canvasback, 700,000 – up 18 percent from 2010, 21 percent above long-term average.
• Scaup, 4.3 million – up 2 percent from 2010, 15 percent below long-term average.
There were 3.2 million ponds in the United States' portion of the survey area, which is the most on record.
"Wetland numbers and conditions were excellent in the U.S. prairies," according to the USFWS report.
The eastern half of the Dakotas are especially wet, and attracted record numbers of ducks. There were 12.5 million breeding ducks in the eastern half of the Dakotas, which is 172 percent above average, according to Delta Waterfowl.
The wet cycle that began in 1994 plays a role in high duck numbers, as do the millions of acres of CRP and a mange outbreak in foxes, according to Delta.
"Mother Nature has dealt the pothole region a winning hand with all this water," John Devney, Delta Waterfowl's senior vice president, said in a news release. "When the prairies get this wet, it sets off a chain reaction of positive outcomes – an abundance of small wetlands attracts more ducks to prime breeding areas, and those ducks are more inclined to re-nest and brood survival increases. Re-nesting is important because it offsets predation.
"But the U.S. prairies won't stay wet forever, and if we continue to lose CRP, native grasslands and wetlands, duck numbers could go down even faster and more dramatically than they've come up in recent years. Worse, without adequate nesting cover, populations will be slower to recover," he added.
According to Ducks Unlimited, nesting cover across the Prairie Pothole Region continues to decline, and observers during the survey noted many large grasslands had been converted to cropland since last year, or were in the process of being converted.
"As a waterfowler, I'm optimistic about today's report," Dale Hall, DU's CEO, said. "However, unprecedented water conditions are only part of the story. Water without nesting cover does little to improve the future of waterfowl.
Minnesota's annual survey of breeding waterfowl in the state wrapped up in May, but DNR officials did not release it before state government shut down last Friday. Sources, though, say the report contains good news on both the duck population and wetland habitat fronts.
According to a news release from the Wisconsin DNR that announced its survey results, Minnesota's survey will show that wetland numbers were at record highs, and that the total breeding duck count was 11 percent above the long-term average.