Decline of mallards will lead to reduced bag limits in Pennsylvania

Harrisburg — No one’s blaming hunters. Not just yet.

But they’re going to pay the price first anyway.

Pennsylvania, like all states in the Atlantic Flyway, has set waterfowl seasons and bag limits for 2018-19. They are nearly identical to last year, at least as far as ducks are concerned.

Hunters will be allowed one additional pintail per day this fall, but that’s the only noteworthy change.

But a much bigger one is coming.

Right now, duck season stretches 60 days. Hunters are allowed four mallards per day, no more than two of which can be hens.

Starting in 2019, though, the mallard limit is likely to go to two per day, total, said Ian Gregg, game management division chief for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Yet to be determined is whether hunters will be allowed to harvest any hens at all.

That decision is likely to be made this fall, said the Atlantic Flyway Council.

That’s a big change, as mallards have been the most abundant, and most harvested, duck in Pennsylvania and the Flyway overall since the late 1970s.

Declining populations are to blame.

Mallard numbers, Flyway-wide, have declined by 1 percent a year – 20 percent total – since 1997, said Joshua Stiller, waterfowl biologist for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Harvests are down nearly 40 percent.

So, at this point, wildlife managers feel the need to do something, Gregg said.

And harvest is the one thing they can control, Stiller added.

“Harvest rates, at their current level, are probably unsustainable,” Gregg said.

Exactly what’s limiting mallards is unclear.

Prior to 1997, duck seasons were 45 days. They increased to 60 then, and they’ve remained there ever since.

“If you look at total mallard populations, there’s a real noticeable inflection point right at that same time. So they were kind of increasing all throughout the ‘90s, and right after we went to six-day seasons, they started decreasing,” Gregg said.

That might be more “correlation” than cause and effect, he said.

“But it’s striking when you see the comparison,” he added.

Researchers across the Flyway and country at large are looking at mallards. Under review are genetics, for starters.

Mallards were not initially the predominant duck along the East Coast. That was the black duck.

Some mallards moved in on their own, according to Ducks Unlimited. Others – “old world” varieties – were imported from Europe by hunt clubs that released them for shoots.

There’s some suspicion, according to that conservation organization, that their descendants are less able to compete and survive on the landscape.

Another issue, scientists believe, might lie in their own system for accounting for ducks.

Mallard populations, like all waterfowl, are counted on the ground and from the air in spring and summer. Fall harvests are monitored by hunters reporting banded ducks killed.

The information being collected – spring populations minus fall harvests – don’t indicate a problem, Stiller said. But some are examining whether there’s a bias in the data, he added.

Researchers have also started looking at habitat, loss of winter feeding sites and more

None of those theories have yet been “rigorously tested,” though, according to a frequently asked questions post from the Council.

So lower bag limits are coming.

As for why the Council is recommending those over shorter seasons, that’s in response to hunter desires.

Human dimensions research shows that hunters value opportunity to get afield more than they do higher bag limits, Stiller said.

“So we’re trying to maximize opportunity while limiting impact on the species,” Stiller said.

In the meantime, hunters need to adapt. Chances are, the changes are going to be in place for a while.

The Council suggests it will be at least two years.

“There is no set timeline for how long the mallard limit will remain at two per day,” said the Council.

“For now, the change is viewed as an interim bag limit while biologists re-evaluate all the available data to develop a more reliable population model and harvest strategy.

“The hope is that mallard populations respond to the decreased harvest pressure and eventually there will be additional opportunity for more liberal bag limits.”

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