Key message to duck hunters: Get ’em now

Springfield — The numbers are downright gaudy: The 2013 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey shows the duck breeding population at the second-highest level ever recorded (see Page 7). In addition, May pond counts were up 24 percent from last year, including a 59-percent increase in the eastern Dakotas, considered the best real estate for U.S. duck production. 

For duck hunters, those numbers are the sweet music of whistling wings come autumn. But waterfowl managers say storm clouds could be on the horizon for the long-term future of duck production across the U.S. and Canadian prairies. As a result, duck hunters, they say, could be staring down the barrel of shorter seasons and reduced bag limits.

“My message to duck hunters is this: Get after ’em now,” said John Devney, vice president of U.S. policy with the Delta Waterfowl Foundation. “All the pressures on the landscape signal that this kind of robust duck production won’t go on forever.”

Devney and other waterfowl managers say excellent water conditions throughout most of the U.S. and Canadian prairies are masking the continued loss of two ingredients that ducks need to successfully reproduce: large expanses of upland nesting cover and nutrition-rich temporary and seasonal wetlands.

“Water is a wonderful thing for ducks, and when you have it, like we do now, the picture is pretty rosy,” Devney said. “But history tells us that water conditions can change very quickly, and when it does, our potential for good duck production declines greatly.”

Waterfowl managers say high commodity prices, especially for corn and soybeans, are enticing farmers throughout the Prairie Pothole Region to convert prime nesting habitat (typically Conservation Reserve Program acres and native prairie) into cropland. In addition, farmers are showing more interest in tiling and wetland drainage after a series of wet years and, by extension, lost planting opportunities. Factor in high commodity prices, and prairie wetlands are extremely vulnerable, perhaps more so today than ever.

“The key concept for duck hunters to understand is that in the Prairie Pothole Region, the vast majority of upland nesting cover and wetlands are privately owned and unprotected,” said Johann Walker, director of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited in the Northern Great Plains region. “This year’s wet conditions will likely be very favorable for ducks. But when it gets dry again, we’re going to have a smaller duck population and possibly restrictive seasons. The current trend of higher commodity prices is putting a lot of pressure on habitat.”

The future could be even bleaker, waterfowl managers say, if Congress doesn’t pass a farm bill that keeps long-term conservation programming for grasslands and wetlands intact. 

“We don’t want to make radical changes to longstanding conservation policy for short-term gains,” said Walker, who noted that the best agricultural policy would provide a safety net for farmers and environmental benefits for conservationists. “Duck hunters really need to stand up and promote federal and state policies that encourage habitat conservation. The farm bill is very important, not only on the programming side, but also on the conservation-compliance side. Contacting your elected officials can make a difference.”

Said Devney: “It’s important to keep CRP and other conservation programs viable because high commodity prices, as history has shown us, are cyclical. Also, as commodity prices have risen, costs for farmers – from cash rent to seed to diesel to fertilizer – have increased, too. If commodity prices finally start to fall, farmers could be in a squeeze and conservation programming could look very attractive again.”

To keep those conservation programs viable, Devney says the “conservation community” needs to do a better job of selling their “public benefits.”

“I think CRP, for example, is well understood by most duck and pheasant hunters, but not your average soccer mom from Eagan,” he said, noting that such conservation programs sequester carbon, improve water equality, and mitigate flooding. “The public is bearing a cost to wetland drainage and grassland conversion and that should be apart of the conversation.”

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