Murky waters for Pennsylvania’s mallard numbers
DALLAS, Pa. — Pennsylvania Game Commission Northeast Region director Dan Figured was thrilled that his office was chosen to host the 2019 Waterfowl Symposium recently.
It marked the first occasion that the symposium, which highlighted waterfowl management in the state and offered a look at upcoming seasons and bag limits, was held in the northeast region. For years, the symposium alternated between locations in the northwest and southwest – both areas are known as waterfowl hotspots in the state.
“The meeting allowed those involved in waterfowl conservation to learn about the framework used to determine migratory bird seasons and bag limits,” Figured said, adding that the northeast will host the symposium every three years. “It also provided opportunity for public input on waterfowl management and gave us a chance to showcase our new office building.”
So, while hosting this year’s symposium put the northeast region on the map in regards to waterfowl conservation, the meeting didn’t paint a rosy picture when it came to some duck species.
Particularly mallards, which are among the most recognizable ducks to the general public.
As biologists and conservation leaders took turns addressing the audience, the fact that mallard ducks are in decline was a common theme. As a result, the proposed federal framework for the 2019-20 waterfowl season in Pennsylvania included a change in the daily bag limits for mallards, from four last season to two (including one hen). The proposal must be approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and while the bag limit for mallards was cut in half, the season length remained the same.
Ian Gregg, game management division chief for the Game Commission, said there isn’t one single cause that is responsible for the declining mallard population. Contributing factors include habitat changes impacting food reserves, competition from Canada geese on food sources and genetic issues resulting from hybridization with domestic mallards.
“The reason why we’re making a change to the season for mallards is the four-bird bag limit is simply unsustainable,” Gregg said. “The decline is pretty significant because (mallards) have historically been the most numerous duck species in the population.”
If there were any questions about the validity of the recommended bag limit reduction, the symposium provided plenty of answers.
Jeremy Stempka offered a host of numbers to back up the change. With numbers as recent as the 2017-18 waterfowl season, Stempka, who is a PGC wildlife biologist, said the mallard harvest in the Atlantic Flyway was 286,400, a 30 percent decrease from the long-term average (1999-2016). No other duck species in Pennsylvania showed an decrease as high.
In Pennsylvania, the mallard harvest in 2017-18 was 19,400, a 54 percent drop from the long-term average.
And when it comes to data that biologists use to base their decisions, the estimated number of mallard breeding pairs in Pennsylvania during 2018 was 57,780, 33 percent below the long-term average.
“Mallards are a declining species,” Stempka said, adding that 2017-18 marked the first year that the wood duck harvest (453,200) was greater than the mallard harvest in the Atlantic Flyway.
Officials from traditional Pennsylvania waterfowl hotspots – the Pymatuning and Middle Creek wildlife management areas – also confirmed that mallard numbers dropped off in those areas as well.
“It’s a big issue, especially with hunter because mallards have always been a fun species to hunt,” Gregg said. “They respond well to decoys and calling.”
Gregg suggested that the drop in the mallard population could be responsible for a corresponding decline in waterfowl hunters.
While the 12,000 duck hunters in Pennsylvania are the eighth-highest total in the Atlantic Flyway, the figure is down 54 percent from the long-term average.
“Mallards are a really big part of the hunting experience, and the decline is a big deal,” Gregg said. “It’s a trend that we hope to turn around, and we’re going to learn a lot from the change in the bag limit.”