MI: State duck hunters optimistic
Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. – Michigan waterfowl hunters have much to anticipate this season with another 60-day season on the books, greater numbers of ducks across North America, and goose flocks that appear to be holding their own.
Some goose hunters already are in the fields and marshes since the early season for resident Canada geese opened Sept. 1. Early goose season dates this year are running the same as previous years – Sept. 1-15 in most of the Lower Peninsula and Sept. 1-10 in the Upper Peninsula and Saginaw, Tuscola, and Huron counties. The daily bag limit is five birds.
Michigan duck hunters will have three separate openers this year – one in each zone. Duck season opens Sept. 24 in the North Zone (Upper Peninsula), Oct. 1 in the Middle Zone (northern Lower Peninsula), and Oct. 8 in the South Zone (southern Lower Peninsula). A split in the North Zone will let U.P. hunters finish their season during the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, while splits in the Middle and South zones will allow a weekend of late-season hunting in December.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports from the annual surveys of Canada and the U.S. Prairie Pothole Region revealed that North American breeding duck populations have increased by 11 percent over 2010, to approximately 46 million birds, and that most species are above their long-term averages. However, Michigan DNR representatives caution that hunters who anticipate seeing thousands more birds this season should temper their enthusiasm, especially when it comes to mallards.
"All of the seasons are set with the federal frameworks and they are driven by the mid-continent populations, but about 75 percent of the mallards taken by Michigan hunters come from the Great Lakes states," said Barbara Avers, the DNR waterfowl specialist. "For a number of years, our Michigan mallard population has been on a slow decline."
Avers said mallards are still the primary duck in the bags of Michigan duck hunters, but their percentage in the bag has been falling, from 47 to 48 percent in 2009 to 36 percent in 2010. She said a new study headed up by the DNR's avian researcher, David Luukonen, might shed some light on the plight of Michigan mallards.
"It should help answer some questions about the decline of our Great Lakes mallards," Avers said. "Right now, the Fish and Wildlife Service recognizes mid-continent, western and eastern mallard stock. We are in the mid-continent classification. The objective of the study is to look at whether the Great Lakes states belong in this model. Do we have a mallard stock that's different from the others? It will also look at how much our harvest affects that population."
The DNR study comes on the heels of Ducks Unlimited research in recent years that looked at mallard production and survival in Michigan and two other Great Lakes states. That study showed that mallards do well during the nesting period but may be lacking adequate habitat once broods have hatched.
Michigan's mallard count this year is down about 34 percent from last year, Avers said, so hunters can expect to see and shoot fewer greenheads. However, there are still reasons to be optimistic about the season, including the fact that Michigan produces a good number of wood ducks. This is the second year that hunters may take three wood ducks after being allowed two in the bag for many years.
"Our wood ducks are holding stable, and we saw an increased take last season, but that was expected with the bigger bag limit," Avers said. "There are good numbers across the state, and we may be starting to see wood ducks take over a little bit for the fewer mallards harvested."
Wood ducks and other forest-dwelling waterfowl such as ringnecks are difficult to survey because of the places that they nest, as opposed to most other species that are included in the USFWS annual surveys in the Prairie Pothole Region. The USFWS surveys showed increases in many duck species that find their way through Michigan during the fall, including redheads, scaup, canvasbacks, and pintails. Green-winged teal, another popular duck in the Michigan waterfowler's bag, were down 17 percent from 2010 in the USFWS survey but still 47 percent above their long-term average.
The news isn't all great for Michigan goose hunters, but it's not terrible, either. There are fewer locally produced geese overall, but as always, there are pockets of the state that have more birds than others do. Hunters who do their scouting will find those places during the early season. Local honkers make up 70 percent of the state's goose harvest.
Migrant birds tend to boost those local flocks later in the season, but there will be fewer migrants winging their way south this year, according to USFWS surveys. Most of Michigan's migrant geese come from two "flocks" – the Mississippi Valley Population and the Southern James Bay Population, which nest around Hudson Bay in Ontario. The USFWS reports that the MVP is down but the SJBP is about the same as last year.
"Overall, I would expect that our Canada goose population is going to be down, but I think some areas with locally produced geese could see some great hunting," Avers said.
The DNR has much to consider when making its recommendations on Michigan's waterfowl seasons to the Natural Resources Commission. The USFWS sets general frameworks, and the states in each flyway set their seasons within those dates. Michigan's Citizens Waterfowl Advisory Committee meets twice per year with DNR staff to discuss the federal frameworks, the status of the state's waterfowl populations, and the feedback received from hunters throughout the state.
"This year, again, I was pleased that the department and CWAC brought forward the same recommendations to the NRC," Avers said.
Avers said it's difficult to make everyone happy, and the group strives to provide the maximum opportunity for hunters within the federal framework.