JEFFERSON CITY–The 2010 waterfowl season promises a mixed bag for hunters, with more ducks but less habitat than usual. The winners will be those hunters who look for opportunities outside the usual hunting hot spots.
Resource Scientist Andy Raedeke said annual surveys of waterfowl nesting grounds in the northern United States and Canada show continued strong numbers of most duck and goose species. Raedeke, the Missouri Department of Conservation’s waterfowl expert, said the total number of breeding ducks seen in mid-continent surveys was approximately 41 million. That is down three percent from 2009, but still 21 percent above the long-term average.
The number of mallards – the mainstay of mid-continent duck hunting – mirrored the overall trend, similar to last year but still 12 percent above the long-term average.
Eight out of 11 species tracked in the annual surveys were above long-term averages. Those showing the strongest long-term gains were green-winged teal (+78%), northern shoveler (+76%), gadwall (+67%) and redhead (+63%).
Species whose numbers remain below long-term averages include northern pintail (-13%) and scaup (-16%).
Blue-winged showed the only statistically significant population change from 2009, with a 14-percent decrease, from 7.4 million to 6.3 million. However, blue-winged teal remain 36 percent above the long-term average. The current teal breeding-population estimate is well above the 4.7-million level that would trigger a more restrictive hunting season.
The number of Canada geese in states north of Missouri has ballooned to more than 750,000. Many of these birds migrate into or through Missouri during the fall and winter, providing opportunities for Show-Me State hunters.
Mid-continent white-fronted geese numbers are estimated as average, while light-goose numbers remain above average.
WEATHER & HABITAT
While these numbers are promising, the number of ducks is only one of three factors needed to produce good hunting. The other two are habitat and weather. Raedeke said habitat conditions differ dramatically across the state.
“This year is really going to be a mixed bag,” said Raedeke. “Rainfall was extremely variable across the state. Places that got heavy rainfall early and then dried out some had very favorable conditions for moist-soil plants, which produce seeds that ducks like to eat. Other places experienced multiple floods during the summer, making it difficult or impossible to plant corn and other food crops. Repeated flooding also limited the growth of moist-soil plants on many areas. Meanwhile, southeast Missouri has had a fairly severe drought this summer, so conditions there probably are not going to be as good as they have been in the past.”
Raedeke said Bob Brown Conservation Area in Holt County is the only large, state-owned managed wetland area reporting good success with crops. He said abnormally wet weather limited habitat development on managed wetlands, especially in northeastern Missouri. However, those abnormal rains also created waterfowl habitat in nontraditional places.
“As of late August, some places that normally are dry had enough water to create excellent duck-hunting opportunities,” said Raedeke. “If we keep getting rain, this could be a year when you find ducks in places that don’t normally have water or ducks.”
Because any area with significant flood-prone acreage could be a duck-hunting hot spot this year, pre-season scouting is more important than ever, according to Raedeke.
Missouri’s waterfowl habitat picture still depends heavily on rainfall over the next two months. Southeastern Missouri needs more rain, while hunters in the rest of the state are hoping for normal rainfall, so moist-soil plants can grow and put on seeds. Once the season starts, rainfall will be needed to flood low-lying areas, so ducks have easy access to flooded crops and native plants.
This year’s waterfowl seasons are:
Early teal season: Sept. 11 through 26
Regular duck season:
• North Zone: Oct. 30 through Dec. 28
• Middle Zone: Nov. 6 through Jan. 4
• South Zone: Nov. 25 through Jan. 23
• Snow, blue, and Ross’s geese: Oct. 30 through Jan. 31 statewide
• White-fronted geese: Nov. 25 through Jan. 31 statewide
• Canada geese and brant: Oct. 2 through 10 and Nov. 25 through Jan. 31 statewide.
Bag limits and other details of this year’s waterfowl hunting season are available at http://bit.ly/bDCOFR for teal and at http://bit.ly/bL1NGl, or in the 2010-2011 Early Migratory Bird Hunting or Waterfowl Hunting digests, which are available wherever hunting permits are sold.
The Missouri Conservation Commission approved moving up the dates for the youth waterfowl season in the Middle Zone by one week. Holding that hunt the same weekend as the North Zone youth season avoids overlap with the statewide youth firearms deer season and youth quail season.
Raedeke said state and federal waterfowl biologists have been working on a new adaptive harvest strategy for pintails for two years. The result is a bag-limit increase from one to two this year. Biologists believe the more liberal limit will not endanger the sustainability of pintail populations but say they are prepared to change the regulation if pintail numbers drop below sustainable levels.
This year’s regulations also include changes to seasons and bag limits for Canada geese. Last year’s early Canada goose season opened in late September. This year, the early season will open one week later. Moving the early season into October, when weather is cooler and more crops have been harvested, is expected to improve the quality of hunting. The early season is three days shorter than last year.
Last year, the regular Canada goose season opened on Thanksgiving Day and ran through Jan. 31. The regular season opens on Thanksgiving Day again this year and runs through Jan. 31, but it is one day longer, due to the date of Thanksgiving.
Last year, the daily and possession limits for Canada geese were three and six birds, respectively, during the early season, while the limits were two daily and four in possession during the regular season. This year, the daily and possession limits are three and six for both the early and regular Canada goose seasons. Raedeke said this change is intended to allow Missouri hunters to take advantage of abundant migrant Canada geese from the upper Midwest.
Missouri’s resident population of giant Canada geese grew steadily during the second half of the 20th century, thanks to the Conservation Department’s restoration work. Their numbers eventually grew large enough that they became nuisances in some areas. Hunting is one of several measures the Conservation Department uses to minimize such problems. The Show-Me State’s current population of resident Canada geese is estimated to be down slightly compared to 2008 and 2009.
“We have about the right number of geese now, and we would like to keep them around this level,” said Raedeke.
For more information about waterfowl hunting in Missouri, visit http://bit.ly/bL1NGl.