USFWS changing methods used for setting duck, goose season rules

Wausau, Wis. — Changes in how a federal agency sets waterfowl seasons will mean that state waterfowl groups will see season-setting meetings held in conjuction with the DNR move from August to March, beginning in 2016.

Kent Van Horn, DNR migratory game bird ecologist, told the 150 waterfowlers attending the Wisconsin Waterfowl Hunters Conference that some changes will be in play when setting future duck and goose regulations.

Migratory birds are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service because the birds cross state lines and the harvest must be shared by all states and provinces.

The process for this year, with public hearings in August, will be similar to last year to obtain comments regarding the 2015 seasons. Those frameworks are set using wintering and breeding ground data from the current year.

But in 2016, seasons will be based on data from the previous year, rather than the current year. This means the 2016 seasons will begin to be set in 2015.

“The big change for you (waterfowlers) is that the meetings I’ve always held in the summer to obtain comments will now be held in March,” Van Horn said.

The season proposal will then go to the Natural Resources Board in April, rather than in August, as in the past.

“The advantage is that in the summer I will be able to tell you the dates for the waterfowl seasons, which is earlier than I can tell you now,” he said.

The other change is that the state is allowed to re-establish duck zones once every five years. Now with the change in the federal regulations cycle, the state will have to delay any changes in the zones from 2016 to 2017.

Van Horn and Al Shook, chair of the Conservation Congress Migratory Bird Committee, will co-chair the process to obtain input for any changes in the zones in 2017.

Flock status

In general, Van Horn believes the status of ducks and geese is in good shape. In 2014, the continental duck numbers were at an all-time high of 49.2 million birds.

Wisconsin’s breeding duck numbers were down slightly, and giant Canada geese that nest in the state were down.

“Still, these are the good old days. What we are seeing in duck numbers is unprecedented in 60 years of surveying them,” Van Horn said.

Teal season

In 2014, Wisconsin had an early teal season for the first time. Early teal seasons had only been offered in southern states in recent years.

The federal framework would have allowed a 16-day season, but there were concerns by sportsmen that it would run up against the regular duck season. Because some hunters expressed concerns with this early season, the DNR opened a seven-day season with a six-bird daily limit and restricted hunting hours.

The DNR trained 28 wardens and wildlife biologists to be observers to determine how well hunters observed the restrictions.

Of 44 hunting parties that were observed during the early teal season, 86 percent were in full compliance, 7 percent (three parties) attempted to follow the rules, but made a mistake, and 7 percent (three parties) were blatant violators.

Out of 368 ducks that were shot while under observation, 18 were not teal.

Observations of hunters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa showed that most hunters complied with the rules, and the non-target kill rate (4.9 percent) was below USFWS thresholds.

The early teal season will be monitored again by observers this fall and next.

Regular season

Van Horn characterized the regular duck season as being pretty good. Pressure was slightly up and there was plenty of water.

Mallards, wood ducks, and teal were the three most commonly harvested species.

The Canada goose season was smooth, with the major regulation change being a reduction in the size of the Horicon Zone.

Hunters reported killing 21,302 Canada geese during the early season, which was the second highest on record. The Exterior Zone accounted for 32,060 geese; 3,019 geese were reported in the Horicon Zone.

“Late September and early October is when we are harvesting most of our Canada geese,” Van Horn said. “By the time we hit November, there aren’t that many people out hunting Canada geese.”

The DNR has been implementing small rule changes for the past 10 years to try to simplify and liberalize the goose season.

“We are cautious to be sure we maintain the long-term resource of Canada geese,” he said.

However a different view is emerging from other states in the Mississippi Flyway, because of differences in where the geese originate.

The majority (57 percent) of Canada geese that Wisconsin harvests originate in Canada and are called the Mississippi Valley Population. The majority of geese that Minnesota and Michigan hunters shoot are giant Canada geese that are raised locally.

For many flyway states, the harvest is 70 to 80 percent giant Canada geese. More states want more liberal goose seasons, paying less attention to the MVP of Canada geese that provides the bulk of hunting in Wisconsin.

“We’re kind of the odd ones out,” Van Horn said. “They are pushing for more liberal goose regulations, and I have concerns about this.”

The MVP population, which nests in northern Ontario, has been on a slow decline. Van Horn has expressed his concern about liberalized rules for the flyway.

Other states may push a proposal to have a straight 107-day season, with a three-bird daily limit, and to eliminate the early and late seasons.

If this takes place, Wisconsin probably will harvest a larger proportion of MVP geese in October. This is opposite of the Wisconsin philosophy of trying to put additional emphasis on harvesting local giant Canada geese.

“I have concerns that we may be shifting the harvest, which will have a long-term negative impact,” he said.

With fewer dollars and manpower available for research, what also may happen is reduced monitoring of Canada geese in Ontario.

In other waterfowl news:

• The federal duck stamp will be increased from $15 to $25 this year to help protect more nesting habitat. The extra $10 cannot be used to buy land; it can only be used to buy easements.
• There are concerns about recent national surveys of hunters to estimate harvests.
• Tennessee has had its second year of sandhill crane hunting, and Kentucky will have its first season this fall.

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