N.D. breeding duck population drops

Bismarck, N.D. — North Dakota wildlife officials say the state’s breeding population of ducks is still strong despite a drop in numbers from last year, and that late-spring rains should help with the breeding effort. 

The recently released annual spring breeding survey conducted by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department showed a measurable decrease in breeding ducks from last year. However, the survey index of 3.9 million birds, down 17 percent from 2012, is still 73 percent above the long-term average. 

“Duck numbers are still really good, well above long-term averages,” said state waterfowl biologist Mike Szymanski, noting 2013 estimates are consistent with others over the last decade.

According to the survey, which also showed a slight increase in the water index, blue-winged teal and gadwall had the largest declines from last year, dropping 38 percent and 28 percent, respectively. Both species are significantly above their long-term averages. Meanwhile, scaup numbers rose notably from last year, while mallards, pintails, shovelers, and canvasbacks were virtually unchanged.

When the survey was conducted, large wetlands had ample water, but many shallow basins that drive the breeding effort were close to being dried up, prompting ducks to seek better water conditions throughout prairie Canada.

“The somewhat poor wetland conditions probably resulted in losing ducks to Canadian nesting grounds,” Szymanski said. “A big factor was probably that our smaller, shallow wetland basins were not holding much water throughout much of the state and the larger wetlands were all frozen when ducks were migrating through North Dakota.”

Joel Brice, director of conservation programs for the Bismarck-based Delta Waterfowl Foundation, said late spring rains that blanketed much of the state after the survey was conducted won’t change duck numbers but will provide better conditions for breeding and raising young.

“The heavy rainfall of late spring will help intensify the breeding effort, because ducks will generally attempt to renest more with better water conditions,” he said. “Clutch sizes could increase and offspring could survive at a higher rate because in summer there will be a greater abundance of emergent vegetation in wetlands. All-around better brood habitat will provide more food and help protect duckings from predators.”

Brice said hunters will get a better handle on the fall waterfowl season when the federal Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, conducted each year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service, is released in early July. The survey is the largest wildlife inventory on the continent and is used to formulate annual waterfowl hunting seasons.

“Right now, conditions look good in North Dakota, which could be an indication of good things to come for hunters, but it’s still just a snapshot of one state,” Brice said.  

What isn’t a snapshot, say N.D. waterfowl officials, is the ongoing loss of critical grassland nesting habitat across the North Dakota duck factory. Szymanski said the loss of Conservation Reserve Program acres “was evident during the survey,” as “massive stretches of land conversion to cropland were evident.”

“The loss of grass will hurt production of ducks and other grassland-nesting birds,” he said. “However, the overly wet conditions will also help bridge the gap a little bit for ducks.”

Brice of Delta Waterfowl agrees. “Good water conditions, like we have in North Dakota now, can mask a lot of larger habitat problems for ducks,” he said.

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