Washington — Before the federal duck survey was released last Friday, waterfowl managers were cautiously optimistic that the breeding population would increase in 2023, in large part because of vastly improved wetland conditions in spring 2022 and likely corresponding improved productivity.
But when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2023 Waterfowl Production Status report dropped, the numbers told another story: The continental breeding population estimate of 32.2 million ducks was a 7% decline from 2022, and was 9% below the long-term average.
The May pond count, which waterfowl biologists say is an important indicator of duck habitat and a potential driver of production, showed 4.98 million ponds, a 9% drop from 2022 and 5% below the long-term average. Mallards, North America’s most abundant duck, dropped 18% from 2022. The popular species is now 23% below the long-term average.
“I have to admit: I overestimated production last year. The prairies started off really, really wet in a lot of places, and all that temporary water looked to be setting up a banner production year,” said Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist for Delta Waterfowl in Bismarck, N.D., adding that the mallard number decrease was “a little shocking.”
“Then it never really rained all that much again and it got dry. We got fooled a little bit by all that early water,” he said.
This year’s survey numbers “reflect a complex relationship between waterfowl, weather, and habitat availability,” according to Ducks Unlimited. “These results are somewhat disappointing, as we hoped for better production from the prairies following improved moisture conditions in spring of 2022,” said Steve Adair, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited. “Last year’s nesting season was delayed with April snowstorms and May rains, which likely impacted overall production. In the past, we’ve seen population growth lag moisture conditions as small, shallow wetlands recover from the lingering impacts of severe drought.”
For duck hunters, few reports are more anticipated than the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, which began in 1955. Beginning in mid-May, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service teams with the Canadian Wildlife Service, as well as state, provincial, and tribal agencies, to conduct the survey. It’s designed to estimate the waterfowl breeding population and evaluate habitat conditions. The results help determine season lengths and dates, and bag limits across the continent’s four flyways.
Considered one of the world’s largest wildlife inventories, the survey covers 2.1 million square miles of the northern United States and Canada. Pilot biologists and official observers fly fixed-winged airplanes at low altitude on established transect lines on the North America’s major habitat areas, primarily across the so-called breeding grounds.
Despite this year’s disappointing breeding population survey, in which several puddle duck species (mallards, gadwall, American wigeon, blue-winged teal, northern shovelers) showed noticeable declines from last year, hunters, Rohwer, and other waterfowl managers say they see the potential for a silver lining for the upcoming duck season.
Consider: This spring, large portions of the Prairie Pothole Region – especially the eastern Dakotas – were wet, thanks to winter snowmelt and timely spring rains. But unlike last spring, Rohwer said timely rains after the survey was conducted – including throughout summer – should boost duck production in the prairies, especially across the eastern Dakotas. Southern Saskatchewan, an important production region that has been drought-stricken for multiple years, should fare better this year, too.
“Production should be better,” Rohwer said. “The Dakotas got rain in late May after the pond count data was assessed, and then we’ve had intermittent rains throughout the summer.”
He said many key areas in the PPR have stayed relatively wet, which should enhance renesting efforts and improve duckling survival – two key drivers of overall duck production. In addition, mammalian predator numbers likely decreased after the harsh winter in the PPR. “It was a rough winter,” Rohwer said.
Asked what hunters in Minnesota and elsewhere should expect for the upcoming duck season, Rohwer said waterfowlers need to keep in mind that they don’t hunt the breeding population.
“Hunters hunt the fall flight, which includes the breeding population … as well as this year’s duck production,” he said. “Year in and year out, the key is production, because those juveniles are the birds most hunters harvest during the season.”
One of the survey’s bright spots was the pintail, an early-nesting species that waterfowl biologists say took advantage of the quality early water conditions. The pintail estimate is 2.22 million, up 24% over 2022, but still 43% below the long-term average.
“It was nice to see pintails respond to better water conditions this spring,” Rohwer said, including notable upticks across the Dakotas, southern Saskatchewan, and southern Alberta. “They arrived in the eastern Dakotas right about the same time huge winter snows melted, so they really took advantage of the early conditions, which were really good. But we also have to keep in mind … they were at all-time lows and close to a closed season.”
Another bright spot: The green-winged teal breeding population increased to an estimated 2.5 million, which is up 16% from last year and 15% above the long-term average.
“Green-wings, which primarily nest in the boreal forest, are doing well,” Rohwer said.
As for diving ducks, the survey results were a mixed bag. Scaup, which have been trending downward for years, continued to decline, dropping 4% from 2022, which is 29% below the long-term average. Redheads decreased to 931,000, down 13% from last year but 27% above the long-term average. Canvasbacks, meanwhile, increased to 619,000, ticking up 6% and 5% above the long-term average.
Overall, DU and Delta Waterfowl agree the lackluster survey results demonstrate the continued need for duck conservation efforts across North America.
“Lower-than-expected numbers in this year’s survey reinforce the need for wetlands conservation as habitat continues to be lost across the continent,” said DU CEO Adam Putnam.”
Minnesota’s 2023 Waterfowl Breeding Population Survey, conducted by the Minnesota DNR in May, showed similar declines overall.
The estimate of overall duck abundance (excluding scaup, or bluebills) was 481,000 ducks, which was 15% below the 2022 estimate of 567,000 ducks and 20% below the 10-year average and 22% below the long-term average. The estimated mallard breeding population was 222,000, which was 4% lower than 2022, according to the survey. The estimated number of Canada geese was 115,000, which was unchanged from last year but down 22% from the long-term average.