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Published: 10/13/2002

Drought hurt duck numbers, yet liberal bag limits prevail

Let's hope that the collective wisdom of federal and state waterfowl managers is on target this fall in the setting of waterfowl hunting regulations, because they may not make sense to conservative duck hunters.

The general waterfowl season opened yesterday in Michigan's middle and south zones, and it opens next Saturday in Ohio's north zone.

But in a spring and summer of drought in many regions of the United States and Canada, several key species in decline, and overall duck numbers lower than a year ago, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is allowing the most liberal rules-framework available from among four options.

And not all biologists agree. Those from the private research organization, Delta Waterfowl Foundation, for example, were hoping for a moderate frame for the season - 45 days with a six-duck bag. Delta, with offices in Bismarck, N.D., and at Delta Marsh in Manitoba, is a conservative voice in waterfowling. Its views are not unique.

Roy Kroll, a professional wildlife biologist in northwest Ohio, the state's prime waterfowling region, said he is concerned about the status of Great Lakes-produced mallards.

“Everything points to how we should be worried about our own mallard populations and not worry about the prairies,” he asserts. Kroll is manager of the prestigious Winous Point Shooting Club on Sandusky Bay, the oldest duck club in the country and one known for its conservation and wetlands efforts.

Five years of record mallard production on the midcontinent prairies did nothing for Great Lakes mallard flights, Kroll contends.

In tailoring specific rules within the federal framework, the Ohio Division of Wildlife chose to reduce the mallard portion of the daily six-duck bag from four to three, with only one hen allowed.

The federal framework actually allowed four mallards, including up to two hens. Michigan has retained four mallards with only one hen, but Wisconsin is allowing two hen mallards for much of its season.

Kroll contends that the Great Lakes region mallard population should be considered separately instead of being rolled into the mid-continent number-crunching as it is now.

“That's the main reason Ohio reduced the mallard bag to three this year,” said Steve Barry, wetlands project leader for the wildlife division.

But Kroll adds: “If we're going to do something to save mallard hunting in the Great Lakes, we have to do something on a multi-state basis.”

Barry noted that duck seasons overall essentially key on mallard numbers and the numbers of ponds in prairie Canada. The U.S.-Canadian annual breeding survey in the prairies set this year's mallard population there at 7.5 million, with another million mallards in the Great Lakes states. “Those numbers put us into a liberal season.”

The liberal option also including giving U.S. Senator Trent Lott [R., Miss.], and the good old boys in six states down South just wanted they wanted and could not get last year - a longer season framework that allows them to kill ducks until the last Sunday in January, a week later than usual. This in states that already bag the lion's share of ducks in the Mississippi Flyway.

The option means a 60-day duck season with a six-duck daily limit. Other alternatives included a 45-day, six-duck season and a 30-day, three-duck season.

If some hunters are suspicious about politics getting an upper hand in the Bush administration, don't be surprised. They may be right. The Bush cowboys are riding rough-shod over all sorts of environmental and conservation initiatives, so why not waterfowl regulations, too?

Admittedly, the setting of any hunting or fishing regulations is a delicate ballet, a tiptoeing among the pitfalls of the best biological data, social pressures, and politics. And make no mistake, the biologists and other technicians involved in gathering the facts are dedicated, hard-working, sincere people, good scientists.

The setting of regulatory options is a very involved time-consuming, consensus process, aimed at balancing hunting opportunity with species conservation. But the biologists can only lay out the facts as they know them; their politically appointed bosses make the final choices - i.e., for a liberal, a moderate, a restrictive, or very restrictive season.

Last year, for example, Senator Lott threatened to interfere with crucial appointments and funding for the USF&WS if he didn't get his boys more duck shooting, this after the season frameworks already were set. Surprise, surprise, this year the Service allowed the extended-season framework, and tossed in the liberal season option for good measure. Amazing.

The USF&WS rationale for this fall's regulatory framework takes nine pages of downloading off the Internet. It appears to be solid and reasonable - but:

The wildlife service in its reasoning for a liberal season acknowledges deteriorating breeding habitat conditions and declining duck populations. But it contends that the population of mallards, the most abundant duck species in the harvest, did not decline significantly from last year.

So another liberal season, as last year, is not out of line by the Service's reasoning. It has promised to closely watch the effects of the longer season framework, expecting a three per cent increase in the mallard take.

Federal biologists also note that hunting pressure on species of concern has been reduced this year - for example, a total closure on canvasbacks and just a 30-day season on pintails.

They also note that regardless of duck abundance and hunting regulations, hunting success can vary from year to year because of changes in weather, habitat conditions, migration behavior, “and many other environmental factors.

“Many duck breeding populations are likely to decline next year regardless of hunting regulations this year,” the Service said, citing the deteriorated habitat in dry and droughty regions.

“Such declines typically are short-lived and are a part of the natural cyclic habitat conditions in the mid-continent breeding areas. Whether hunting regulations are restricted next year depends more on breeding habitat conditions next year than the choice of hunting regulations this year.”

As for allowing a six-duck daily bag now, the Service noted that season length has much more impact on the size of harvests than the daily bag limit. Indeed, most days a limit just does not happen for most hunters.

Says Ohio's Steve Barry: “If it continues to stay dry, duck numbers are going to go down, no matter what we do with duck regulations. We really can't stockpile ducks. The amount of harvest will not be as big an influence as the amount of rain next spring and winter snows.”

For all that, it may be worth it for waterfowlers to consider quitting one mallard short each day in the blind. It may not help, but it cannot hurt, either. It is the hunt, the day afield, not a limit, that counts.



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