Waterfowl hunters in 1997 will be enjoying one of the largest fall flights of ducks in this half of the century. Ducks and duck habitat have rebounded to near unprecedented levels from record low numbers and drought conditions during the 1980s.
A 5-year run of wet conditions on the U.S. and Canadian prairies coincided with the Conservation Reserve Program and conservation programs under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The result is a duck recovery that few would have predicted.
Predictions for large duck flights are raising expectations among waterfowl hunters throughout North America. Estimates of breeding ducks from May surveys were the highest since surveys began in 1955.
Duck numbers in May 1997 (42.6 million) were 60 percent higher than just 4 years ago and 70 percent higher than in 1988. Nesting gadwall, shoveler and redhead numbers were the highest on record. Mallard numbers, 25 percent higher than in 1996, were the highest since 1970. Even a pintail decline was reversed in 1997 (up 30 percent from 1996) reaching the highest breeding population level since 1982.
Numbers of ponds surveyed in the prairies in May 1997 were 150 percent higher than in 1988 when drought prevailed. In July, wetland conditions still were excellent; pond numbers were 50 percent greater than the long term average. Biologists counted a record number of duck broods in the Dakotas. In prairie Canada brood numbers were 40 percent greater than average. The result is a forecast of 92 million ducks in the fall flight for 1997. This is similar to the 90 million in 1996, and is 56 percent higher than just 4 years ago.
Duck hunting opportunity will be the greatest experienced by all but about 15 percent of Missouri waterfowl hunters - those who began waterfowling before the 1960s. This year's 60-day duck season is the longest since the 70-day season in 1958.
Actually, with 60-day seasons in each of Missouri's three duck zones, hunters have even more opportunity than 40 years ago. They can hunt from October in the north to January in the south zone. Although bag limits are not as liberal as those during the point system 15 years ago, there still will be ample opportunity for roast duck this fall.
Despite this fall's outlook for duck numbers and hunting opportunity, most hunters and biologists realize that it can't last. The past 40 years have shown us that changes in wetlands and waterfowl are volatile. Declines follow duck population peaks, wet conditions give way to drought and liberal hunting opportunity is usually replaced by shorter seasons.
Drought is inevitable and essential for viable wetlands. They are dynamic habitats driven by periodic drying and reflooding. Wetland plants are revived as nutrients are recycled and wetland wildlife, including ducks, directly benefit from this dynamic productivity.
Thus, drought is both the good news and the bad news and the roller coaster trends of duck populations are a reflection of the boom and bust nature of wetlands. This certainly is not a concern for 1997; ducks have responded to plentiful wetlands and improved nesting conditions. Opportunities for waterfowl hunting in Missouri are the best in decades.
Predictions about duck increases do not necessarily translate into great duck hunting success. And a forecast for more than 90 million ducks in the fall-flight does not mean they all will be on Truman Reservoir at one time. Less than 40 percent of the continent's ducks will migrate through the Midwest, and only a portion of these through Missouri.
Despite the number of birds projected to migrate south this fall, the timing and pattern of duck movements, the conditions of Missouri wetlands and the timing of freeze-up all will affect the availability of ducks.
Predictions of large fall flights in 1996 were not reflected in universally good duck hunting throughout the Mississippi Flyway or in Missouri. Many hunters ended the season wondering where all the ducks were. Breeding populations last spring, however, were a good indication that projections for the 1996 increase were on target.
In addition, a record flyway harvest of 6.5 million ducks in the 1996-97 season was 240 percent higher than during the 30-day season of 1988, suggesting that not all hunters had poor hunting last fall. In Missouri, the 261,400 duck harvest in 1996 was nearly 20 percent higher than during the 1995 season and was 150 percent higher than just four years ago.
One hunter contacted me after the season complaining that only half the ducks he shot were mallards. The rest he termed "trash ducks," teal, shovelers and other early migrant ducks. Although many Missouri hunters prefer mallards - usually mallards make up more than 50 percent of the state's duck harvest - they comprise less than 20 percent of the continent's fall flight of ducks.
Species such as gadwalls, green-winged teal and wood ducks account for an increasing proportion of the duck flight through Missouri and many of the ducks in hunters' bags.
With longer seasons in 1997, we tailored hunting dates to include opportunities for early migrant ducks as well as late season mallard days. The challenge is to open seasons before major migrations and not lose too many days to freeze-up and duck departure.
Some waterfowl hunters are afraid that liberal hunting seasons in 1997 will result in duck population declines. However, most agree that the condition of wetlands and nesting cover are the overwhelming factors affecting duck status. Duck numbers and duck habitats will always fluctuate. Increases in duck populations in recent years are dividends from wet weather and investments in conservation initiatives like the Conservation Reserve Program and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Whether they have hunted for 1 year or 70, Missouri waterfowlers will mark this year's duck flight as a new standard.
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