Another liberal season for waterfowlers

Sault Ste Marie, Mich. — When it comes to setting waterfowl-season regulations, there is no pleasing everyone, but it appears there is much to like with the coming seasons in Michigan, including the season dates, number of birds expected to fly south, and the number of birds allowed in the bag.

Duck hunters will once again get a 60-day duck season, with splits in all three of the state’s waterfowl zones that will allow for late-season hunting, and a six-bird bag limit. Goose hunters will see one of the longer seasons in recent years. In fact, Upper Peninsula goose hunters will be able to hunt honkers continually from Sept. 1, when the early season opens, through Dec. 11, which is 10 days after the duck season closes.

In addition this fall, diver hunters will be allowed an extra canvasback in the six-bird daily bag limit for the first time in many years, and biologists are projecting that early season hunters likely will see a good number of teal and wood ducks, as they did in fall 2012.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says estimates for most species were in good shape when it conducted its annual survey of breeding ducks earlier this year. USFWS staff found 45.6 million ducks, slightly fewer than 2012 but still 33 percent above the long-term average recorded since 1955.

Meanwhile, habitat conditions were as good as or better than last year in the USFWS traditional survey area, and the report was the same for habitat here in Michigan. Barb Avers, waterfowl and wetlands specialist with the Michigan DNR, said conditions for breeding birds were good, although too much water in some places may have caused problems for some of the earlier-nesting ducks and geese.

“Our wetland numbers were up, and in some places we may have even had too much water and early nesters may have been flooded out,” Avers said, noting that DNR crews banding ducks and geese this summer reported many broods of small ducks and geese later than usual.

“The goose banders were really late this year. They were still banding during the first week of July and were finding small, fuzzy goslings. It was similar in the U.P., where duck banders were catching very small ducklings.”

Avers said that typically adult geese in Michigan have lost their flight feathers by the first two weeks of June, making it possible to capture them for banding. While ducks and geese will try again if their first nests are destroyed, it can be tougher for late-hatched broods to survive.

Avers said there may be fewer local ducks in Michigan this year, but probably not by much from 2012, when an early spring may have skewed the count of breeding birds. Likewise, resident Canada goose numbers are slightly lower this year than 2012, but are still above the state goal. Michigan has approximately 265,000 resident honkers, well above its goal of 175,000 to 225,000.

“Local geese are down slightly from last year, but with the good habitat conditions, hunters may not see a difference from last year in the field,” Avers said. “We still have good goose numbers. Our nuisance goose complaints are the same as last year.”

Avers said migrant geese – which, in Michigan, come mostly from two populations that nest near Hudson Bay – are about the same as last year, too. The Mississippi Valley Population is stable and the Southern James Bay Population is down slightly.

“We have as liberal of a goose season as you can possibly get,” Avers said. “The federal rules allow us to hunt migratory birds for 107 days total, and we now hunt geese in Michigan for 107 days. Anyone hunting geese can appreciate that. It’s amazing.”

While the ranks of duck hunters are divided between those who enjoy the warmer beginning of the season and those who prefer to hunt when the ice starts to form, it appears that many hunters enjoyed last year’s earlier opening and are looking forward to this year, when the season will open Sept. 21 in the U.P. Avers said the Citizens Waterfowl Advisory Committee, which serves as a liaison between waterfowl hunters and the DNR, recommended season-opening dates for the coming three years when it met in August.

“That was one of the more significant things we talked about,” Avers said. “We now have opening dates for the next two years, something we’ve been looking at for seven to eight years. We got a lot of positive feedback from hunters regarding last year’s early opener. There were a lot of teal and wood ducks around.”

Meanwhile, Avers said CWAC members and DNR staff were hearing from duck hunters who were frustrated not knowing how to plan for the season opener. She said a standard season opening date is something that more duck hunters appear to want and it “meshes really well with where the department wants to go with setting more multi-season regulations. The Natural Resources Commission wants to see it, too. It allows more time to evaluate seasons and make changes without a year-to-year reaction.”

Federal rules allow the duck season to open on the Saturday closest to Sept. 24. Due to the way the calendar falls, that puts the opener on Sept. 21 in the U.P. this year, two weeks ahead of the Middle Zone opener of Oct. 5. For the next two years, the season will open on the last Saturday in September in the North Zone.

Avers said the splits in the season this year were designed to maximize weekend hunting opportunity. In the North Zone, hunters will get to hunt not only on Thanksgiving weekend, which has become something of a tradition in recent years, but also the weekend and week leading up to the holiday, from Nov. 23 to Dec. 1. Middle and South zone splits will stay the same at two days, Dec. 14-15 and Dec. 28-29, respectively.

“So there will be plenty of early season opportunity, but for the hunters who want to go out late in the season, there are a lot of days to play with there, too,” Avers said.

Looking ahead to 2014, Avers said it appears Michigan hunters will finally get an early teal season, along with other “duck production states,” including Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.

“We’ve been working with the Fish and Wildlife Service for about the past 10 years on this,” Avers said. “The service undertook an extensive teal harvest assessment some years ago. The study was completed last year and it was found that teal could sustain more harvest than we’re seeing right now, so we will bring a proposal to the winter flyway meeting in February.”

Avers said she is not sure how long the season will be, yet. It could be as few as five days or as many as 14, and she said it would be experimental for at least three years, with the state being required to monitor the number of other ducks shot during the teal-only season. The teal season dates would be in addition to the regular Michigan duck season, she said.

This season marks the second of the Michigan Waterfowl Legacy, a 10-year, cooperative partnership to restore, conserve, and celebrate the Michigan waterfowling tradition. For information, visit Michigan.gov/mwl

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