Drought, fires mean tough year for ducks in an important waterfowling state

9 12 Rob Waterfowl
(Image courtesy of Gary Kramer, USFWS)

It didn’t get much publicity in the Upper Midwest, but several national outdoors media outlets reported last week that America’s first National Wildlife Refuge dedicated to waterfowl, the Klamath Basin in northern California, is bone dry. Theodore Roosevelt himself established the 192,000-acre refuge to provide critical habitat for migratory waterfowl, shorebirds, and other wildlife species in the Pacific Flyway. As we’ve seen everywhere in mainstream media, severe drought has affected the region, and that’s bad news for ducks and duck hunting in America’s No. 1 waterfowling state.

You read that right. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Hunting Activity and Harvest Report that came out last month, California ranked first in total duck harvest in the United States. For the record, Minnesota came in fifth. In between within the top five were Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana. Other states have more hunters, but a lot of birds from across the continent winter in California, and the Pacific Flyway has long waterfowling seasons. Anyone who’s hunted there knows the tremendous duck and goose opportunities that exist on the West Coast. The best two days of duck hunting I’ve ever experienced occurred in coastal Oregon.

Minnesota lost its waterfowl association a few years back, but John Carlson is the president of a surprisingly vibrant California version, one of the last state waterfowl groups left standing. Multiple entities lay claim to water around Klamath, including agriculture, ranching, local tribes, and then the refuge at the bottom of the list. His organization has been lobbying to find more reliable water sources and even has raised money to purchase water rights from local ranchers. “We’re getting some traction,” he said. “But obviously it’s tough when there’s no water in the system now.”

Other interesting stats from that USFWS report: Those other top five harvest states all kill more ducks per season compared to Minnesota. (MN, 7.8 per season; TX, 10.7; LA, 16.5; AR 16.2; and California at a whopping 21.1 birds per season.) Minnesota ranked in the middle of those top five in terms of number of duck hunters in 2021, shown in thousands: (LA, 37,300; CA, 44,000; MN, 54,800; AR, 56.,500 and TX, 64,600.) Bottom line, those 44,000 California waterfowlers get a lot of bang for their duck hunting license buck.

Those numbers may drop in 2022 because of drought, and losing waterfowlers anywhere affects the entire hunting industry, not to mention lost license sales for habitat and conservation work.

RICE SYSTEM FAILURE. Speaking of West Coasters, central Minnesotans Greg and Pete Kvale had planned to host a pair of Washington State residents for some wild ricing in early September. The Washington couple won the trip via a Backcountry Hunters and Anglers auction back in May, but Greg told me last week that they’ve advised the recipients to stay home in 2022 because Minnesota’s wild rice is in such poor shape.

“Sparse” has been the operative word among folks who’ve tried ricing since the season opened on August 15 as well as on the 1854 Treaty Authority’s website, which posts frequent rice bed status reports across the region. Go figure that as of last week, Minnesota only had sold 619 season licenses in 2022  compared to 1,354 total last year and 1,805 in 2020. One-day licenses have dropped even more, like by 80%.

Gary Drotts, a retired DNR Wildlifer who’s been pickin’ wild rice for 50 years, said the late spring and high water created lousy conditions for the plants to germinate. The resulting shorter rice makes for tough harvesting, though he says it’s a solid crop for ducks. Also, thin rice in the middle of some basins means more birds will work the thicker “fringe rice” at the edges of lakes and wetlands, and that ain’t bad for waterfowlers this fall. I’m hoping to hit some rice beds myself later this week for some firsthand action and reports.

Categories: Rob Drieslein, Waterfowl

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