Liberal rules cutting into Wisconsin mallard, woodie numbers?

Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. — Although waterfowl populations have been high in recent years, there is concern from some hunters that mallards and wood duck numbers have slid downhill.

Now, whether those lower numbers stem only from liberal hunting regulations, other factors, or a little of everything, remains open for debate, according to some corners.

Jon Bergquist, retired DNR waterfowl ecologist, voiced his concerns over long seasons and liberal regulations beginning in 2014 and thinks that still could be the case.

“It sure appears that season length and bag limits in Wisconsin may play a major role in Wisconsin’s spring mallard and wood duck populations,” Bergquist said.

Taylor Finger, the DNR waterfowl ecologist who now works in Bergquist’s former role, isn’t as quick to lay all of that change on liberal regulations.

“Jon is correct, in that we have seen a decline in our mallard population; however, we can’t make the direct connection that hunting is what is driving that decline,” said Finger. “We have seen an 11 percent decline in hen mallard survival since the 1960s, with the majority occurring over the past 20 years.

“We have also seen a dramatic decline in CRP and nesting habitat in Wisconsin during that same period of time, with the combination of longer and earlier seasons since 1997 and a decline of 700,000 acres of CRP in 1994 to 230,000 in 2015,” he said.

Locally-raised mallards make up most of the daily bag for Wisconsin hunters. Any decline in local mallard populations could influence future duck hunting opportunities in Wisconsin.

The reason for concern is that survival rates for Wisconsin hen mallards have been declining over time.

“I think we need to continue to protect our hen mallards and further protect our hen woodies,” Bergquist said.

Bergquist said it is well documented that mallard hens have a very strong homing instinct to return and nest near their native marsh, whereas drakes generally pair up with a hen on the wintering grounds and follow the hen back to her native marsh.

“In response, we have taken one regulatory step and that is to maintain a one-hen mallard bag limit,” said Finger. “It is the best regulatory step we can take and still provide a 60-day season. We have continued to promote/support nesting habitat projects and conservative regulations.”

Waterfowl ecologists believe that about 70 percent of the harvest of mallards in Wisconsin is comprised of local mallards.

“To put this into perspective, Wisconsin has roughly 200,000 breeding mallards,” said Finger.

Compare that to 10.5 million breeding mallards continentally. The birds that make up the majority of Wisconsin’s harvest represent only 2 percent of the total continental breeding estimate so it is important that we recognize that the pool of birds we hunt and rely on is very small.

That’s Bergquist’s point.

Bergquist said that the general package of waterfowl regulations offered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to states in the Mississippi Flyway is based on the mid-continent mallard population and the number of May ponds in prairie Canada.

The mid-continent mallard population is much larger than the smaller 176,200 estimated nesting mallards in Wisconsin.

“We don’t shoot that many prairie mallards,” Bergquist said. “We shoot our own mallards, yet the framework offered to our state is based on the mid-continent population.”

Wisconsin’s longer 60-day duck seasons began in 1997. Bergquist notes that Wisconsin’s breeding mallard population increased until 2000, but then has steadily decreased until its lowest points in 2014 and 2015.

Wood ducks, the No. 2 duck in the bag of Wisconsin hunters, have also been decreasing.

Bergquist notes that in 2008 the bag limit was increased from two wood ducks a day to three woodies daily. And, with the season opening earlier in northern Wisconsin, local woodies now face an extra week of gunning pressure and harvest.

“Jon is correct in that after a long-term increase in our wood duck population, we appear to have leveled out or may even be slightly declining,” said Finger. “Again, we do not have any information or confirmation that the change in the bag limit and 60-day seasons are driving this.”

The trend in breeding wood duck populations from 1997 to 2015 is decreasing, with the lowest numbers in 2015. Bergquist wonders if the longer season and larger bag limit could also be negatively impacting hen wood ducks.

“I don’t know if harvest is impacting our subsequent breeding populations but it is something to really be concerned about, because harvest can have an effect on populations,” Bergquist said.

“People don’t think harvest impacts things, and it doesn’t if you have the right set of regulations. But it can if your regulations are too liberal,” he said.

Bergquist is glad that Wisconsin has always kept the daily bag limit on hen mallards at one per day.

Bergquist urges the state to keep a cautious eye on the harvest trends of mallards and wood ducks in Wisconsin.

“Fortunately, we have a research study out of UW-Stevens Point with Dr. Jacob Straub and his graduate student Kali Rush who will be looking at Wisconsin wood ducks and factors that influence survivability,” said Finger. “This is going to be an important source of information to help us determine what could be potential sources of wood duck mortality.”