Questioning the new waterfowl regulations
For some reason, the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changin’” popped into my head as I sat at the computer to write this blog, wondering what things will be like in a decade as they pertain to the outdoors and our natural resources. We are at a crossroads with many of our treasured hunting and fishing activities. One that I’m concerned about is the future of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting.
We all should know what’s happening with duck and goose populations, as well as corresponding regulations for hunting this fall. It seemed pretty much a done deal relative to what waterfowl biologists uncovered pertaining to breeding pairs and population numbers of Canada geese, as well as overall population levels of mallards and black ducks. It all made sense when taken at face value.
Goose hunting seasons in some areas were going to be reduced from 45 days to 30 days, and the daily limit for birds would drop from three to two in some areas. Some seasons would be eliminated (such as the South Area special season held in March). Mallard daily limits would be cut in half, dropping from four to two birds (and only one hen). I didn’t question the results of the studies, but I still wondered what impact that would have on the future of the sport. That was until I ran into Ken Zolnowski of Buffalo.
Zolnowski is a longtime volunteer with the New York State Conservation Council’s Waterfowl Committee, active with the Finger Lakes and Western New York Waterfowl Association and a member of the Western Zone Task Force on Waterfowl for 17 of the last 20 years. At least he was involved with the Task Force until the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) slowly started to phase them out.
The Task Force, made up of 10 to 12 individuals representing the leadership of waterfowl groups and sportsmen’s representatives in Western New York, would help to shape the duck and goose hunting seasons each fall and winter. At least the group would make season recommendations that would come from New York using the federal guidelines.
“The state is no longer asking the task group for duck season-setting input and they plan to abolish the Task Force starting in 2019,” Zolnowski said. “We are being replaced by DEC using a Structured Decision Making (SDM) modeling approach, using data collected from a survey of waterfowlers conducted in the fall of 2017. This modeling approach to season selection is widely opposed by all major Western Zone waterfowl groups.”
Zolnowski first raised questions on the issues with Canada geese. The West Central Area of the state, which includes major hunting areas like Iroquois, Montezuma, Oak Orchard and Tonawanda, as well as much of the Finger Lakes, will see a reduction in the number of days from 45 to 30. The daily limit will drop from three to two birds per hunter.
“What doesn’t make sense is that Atlantic Population (AP) Canada goose breeding pair counts were down by 30 percent, but the total population actually increased from 2016 to 2018,” Zolnowski said. He add that he believes the breeding pair count methodology is flawed, but he can’t get the answers he needs to better understand what is happening out there.
Zolnowski is familiar with computer modeling. He emphasizes that you need good data to make accurate predictions.
“Cornell is involved with this computer modeling, with much of the duck abundance data being collected through eBird, a birdwatcher data source for basic information on bird abundance and distribution. Some of the modeling outcomes simply don’t make sense to many of us waterfowlers and I want to ask Cornell direct questions, but DEC won’t let me. I think it’s flawed information. Some models have a tendency to over-predict. DEC should be asking for backup documentation but they are not.”
One example showed that in the Western Zone, the abundance data on mallards and black ducks was nearly as high the last week of January as it was the last week of November and the first week of December.
“If that’s the case, where are the birds coming from?” Zolnowski asked. “By the time we hit the first week of December, many areas like Montezuma and Iroquois and areas north into Canada freeze over. As the winter weather becomes more severe, it pushes these ducks out and the number of ducks in New York continues to drop.”
Zolnowski said he thinks one of two things could be happening. Either there is over-reporting from bird concentrations in the few remaining open-water areas or there is contamination of New York data from reports registered in adjacent states and provinces. DEC admitted that birdwatcher reports from Ohio, Pennsylvania and Canada were used in the analysis, according to Zolnowski. The key point he makes is that if these two weeks have bad values, maybe the methods used have flaws that also give poor estimates for all the weeks in the season.
“These abundance values were used in computations for selecting the duck season dates,” Zolnowski said. “It just doesn’t reflect on what we are seeing.”
Zolnowski also questions how mallard populations could have dropped by 20 percent overall in the flyway. In mallard harvest data recorded from 1999 to 2018 at the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge, there has been a 100-percent increase in mallard harvest over two decades of hunting. “You can’t shoot ducks that aren’t there,” he says.
The duck seasons being pushed this year, which will be similar for the next five years, will be Oct. 19 to Nov. 10 and Nov. 30 to Jan. 5, 2020.
“Hunters who enjoy the second week of January or the last couple weeks of November are totally upset with these new changes,” Zolnowski said. “It’s another nail in the coffin for waterfowl hunting and people will start to leave the sport.”