BISMARCK, ND — Duck hunters from Minnesota to Louisiana are organizing rallies and planning public hearings in an attempt to answer the most nagging question in the outdoors: "Where were the ducks?"
Delta Waterfowl President Rob Olson says one reason hunters across the country have been disappointed by recent duck seasons is that the Canadian portion of the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) isn't attracting and producing as many ducks it once did.
"Duck hunters believe we still have lots of ducks," Olson says. "They've been told the fall flights have been shortstopped by mild winters or by refuges or changing farming practices — or all of the above. But the biggest culprit is that we don't have as many ducks as we used to, and lack of production on the Canadian side of the breeding grounds is a big part of the problem."
Olson says duck populations always rise and fall in response to water conditions on the prairie breeding grounds, and the 1990s were no exception. "Most hunters were satisfied with the number of ducks they saw in the '90s, but prairie Canada didn't participate in the bounty — at least not at its former levels."
A look at the breeding population of mallards during the last three wet cycles paints a grim picture of Canada's waning productivity.
"Between 1955 and 1958, prairie Canada attracted an average of 6.9 million nesting mallards each spring," Olson says. "During the wet cycle between 1970 and 1976, an average of 4.8 million mallards nested in prairie Canada. But during the wet cycle that lasted from 1994 to 1999, only 3.5 million mallards settled there each spring, barely half the number it attracted in the 1950s.
"Not only are fewer mallards settling in prairie Canada, but nest success is half what it was in the '50s," continues Olson. "With half the breeding mallards experiencing half the nest success-well, you do the math."
According to Olson, the average number of mallards that settled in prairie Canada during the wet cycle of the '90s was comparable to the 1960s, a decade remembered for drought conditions, low duck numbers and very restrictive seasons.
"Prairie Canada is no longer the pristine wilderness many duck hunters envision," says Olson. "Canada doesn't have large-scale government-backed conservation programs like the US, and that means Canadian farmers are forced to put as much land as possible into production.
"With no provincial crop subsidies or conservation programs, it's a simple matter of economics — farmers have to get bigger and more efficient if they're to survive. Waterfowl managers have to become more efficient, too, if we hope to reverse the declines in duck production."
Olson says the US portion of the PPR picked up the slack for Canada during the wet cycle of the 1990s. "Research conducted by the Fish and Wildlife Service shows that the US portion of the region now attracts three times the density of nesting ducks that Canada does, and hens nesting in the US bring off broods at a higher rate than Canadian-nesting ducks.
"One reason the US is more productive than Canada is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which idled millions of acres of nesting cover in the Dakotas, Montana and Minnesota," says Olson. "And let's not forget about the Fish and Wildlife Service's federal duck stamp program, which secured over 90 percent of the permanently protected waterfowl habitat on the US side of the PPR.
"More than 90 percent of the continent's ducks are produced on private land," Olson says. "That means conservationists must work toward farm-friendly programs that provide the habitat nesting ducks require to be successful."
Olson says Delta Waterfowl has been working with Keystone Agricultural Producers (KAP) and is close to announcing the first pilot projects for Alternate Land Use Services (ALUS), a CRP-type program for Canada. "ALUS is currently our best chance to have a large, landscape-level impact on Canadian breeding ducks, and it has the full support of most ag groups across Canada.
"Prairie Canada is critical to healthy duck populations," says Olson. "Some of the conservation programs in place there have been successful, but others have not. The prairie portion of Canada occupies 120 million acres, and there simply aren't enough conservation dollars to secure adequate habitat to impact duck production across all of it.
"In most areas of the Canadian prairie, we'll never have sufficient habitat to increase duck production in our lifetimes, so we must put other management tools to work."
Olson says Delta is expanding the use of Hen Houses (nesting structures) in Canada this year, and is hoping to launch a predator management program to Canada in the near future.
Courtesy of Delta Waterfowl.
For more information visit their website at www.deltawaterfowl.org.