The pot filled with proposed federal waterfowl hunting rules is simmering this summer, and you can rest assured that the task of setting the seasons hardly will be as easy as proverbial duck soup.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's annual waterfowl status report is due in the next 10 days or so, and thereafter the agency will decide which of four framework options it will select.
The options range from liberal and moderate to restrictive and very restrictive. Based on information released so far, it appears that the ducks and geese will be a political football. Again.
Last fall U.S. Sen. Trent Lott (R., Miss.) tried to bully the USF&WS into fattening up duck seasons for six southern states, including his own. The insider political tactics, however, failed and the Deep South states had to adhere to more conservative seasons as agreed.
But that was then. This is now. And now the USF&WS has agreed to extend the opening and closing framework dates under its liberal or moderate options.
The framework dates are the calendar boundaries within which states must set seasons.
The traditional waterfowl opening date has been the Saturday nearest Oct. 1 and the closing date has been the Sunday closest to Jan. 20. These would be the framework dates under restrictive or very restrictive season options.
Under the liberal and moderate options, however, the USF&WS would allow an opener on the Saturday nearest Sept. 24 and a closer on the last Sunday in January.
The late closer is what Lott and company have been maneuvering for in the last several years to benefit Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. Those states are major wintering grounds for the ducks and a longer late-season benefits their gunners, who already are leaders in ducks bagged.
Ron Kokel, a wildlife biologist with the Division of Migratory Bird Management, an arm of the USF&WS, said that the Service will not select a framework option till after the status report is issued.
But Ohio's Steve Barry, however, thinks that the “feds” will pick the liberal option, including the extended calendar and the liberal 60-day, six-duck rules of recent years.
Barry, the wetland wildlife project leader for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, was among biologists who strongly protested the Lott strategy last fall.
He notes “some concern” within the Mississippi Flyway Council, one of four such councils, about the impact of extended frameworks, especially on mallards, the favorite “big duck” and management focal point.
“Framework dates for the regular duck season have been a subject of great controversy in recent years,” admits Tom Melius, the Service's assistant director for migratory birds and state programs. He added that the agency agreed to consider framework extensions only after extensive discussions with the flyways, the national flyway council, and International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies.
The USF&WS predicts that extending the frameworks will boost the annual mallards kill by as much as 15 percent. But it says it would take that into account, along with current population and habitat conditions in proposing its harvest-management plan.
The Service's annual spring breeding survey in the prairies set the mallard population there at 7.5 million, “largely unchanged from last year,” and near the long-term average. Another million mallards were estimated in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, up from 780,000 in 2001.
Drought conditions greeted ducks in key prairie nesting areas in the spring, but the Service said it is encouraged that of breeding mallards and total ducks are near long-term averages.
Still, the total number of breeding ducks in parts of Canada and the northern United States fell to 31.2 million birds in traditionally surveyed areas. That is 14 percent lower than in 2001 and six percent below the long-term average.
Water and wetlands conditions between 1995 and 2000, however, were exceptionally good and ducks numbers reflected it.
“We continue to have serious concerns over the status of pintails, scaup, and black ducks, however, and continued hunting restrictions for those species are likely,” said Melius.
“We probably would support a moderate framework [option],” said Rob Olson, of the conservative Delta Waterfowl Foundation. A moderate framework would call for a 45-day duck season with a six-duck bag.
Delta, with offices in Bismarck, N.D., and at Delta Marsh, Manitoba, is a private waterfowl research organization.
Olson noted that season length, not daily bag, drives overall harvest. A restrictive framework would call for just a 30-day season and a three-duck daily bag and so far no one advocates that choice.
Olson noted the continued precipitous, drought-driven decline in pintail numbers - the lowest since surveys began in 1955 at just 1.8 million and 46 percent lower than in 2001.
“We're managing season based on mallard numbers, and those numbers are just average.”
He noted that while mallard numbers hover at their long-term average, they have dropped another five percent, marking the third consecutive year of decline from a 41-year high of 10.8 million in 1999.
Too, the survey of ponds in May in the prairie pothole region - the continent's “duck factory” - showed a significant 41 percent decline.
“The take-home message is this is not a good year for ducks.”
The USF&WS already has announced that it is shortening the special early teal hunting season, set for September.
For Ohio that translates into just a nine-day season, beginning Sept.7, instead of the 16-day season of recent years.
The reduction is linked to a 27 percent decline in blue-winged teal numbers this spring because of drought conditions in mid-continent breeding grounds. Bluewings now six percent lower than their long-term average.
Green-winged teal are down percent from 2001 but still 28 percent above the -term average.
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