Dry conditions across the Dakotas and Prairie Canada spell trouble for this spring's nesting waterfowl
Drought has hit much of the Prairie Pothole Region, and the dry conditions will likely affect duck production in 2021.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s May water index was down 80 percent from the previous year and almost 68 percent lower than the long-term (1948 through 2020) average. The percentage-based decline in the number of wetlands holding water was the largest in the survey’s history. Currently, the U.S. Drought Monitor indicates that most of North Dakota is in severe, extreme or exceptional drought.
“This is the bad news we knew was coming,” Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl, said in a press release. “The reduction in water is staggering.”
Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said 2020 was the sixth wettest year on record, but 2021 is the fifth driest in 74 years.
“That’s an indication of how dynamic this system is that we work in,” he said in a department press release. “We essentially have no temporary and seasonal basins holding water on the landscape right now. And that has huge ramifications for duck production in the state.”
North Dakota is in the heart of the Prairie Pothole Region, which is one of North America’s most important breeding areas for ducks. Water conditions aren’t much better throughout the rest of the region, either. Much of South Dakota is in severe to moderate drought. Southern Manitoba was locked in extreme drought, and much of southern Saskatchewan was in moderate to severe drought.
Szymanski said the drought would likely cause a drastic decline in areas for ducks to establish pair territories and for hens to find quality forage for egg production — factors that might deter ducks from nesting.
“If a hen sees an area with poor or declining wetland conditions, she’s going to work under the assumption that there’s no place to raise a brood later,” he said. “Even though we counted a fairly large number of ducks on our survey, most of those ducks are not going to nest unless we have a very, very dramatic change on the landscape.”
The state’s 2021 breeding index was down about 27 percent from 2020, at about 29 million ducks, which was still about 19 percent higher than the long-term average and the 48th highest on record.
“That’s still a lot of ducks,” Rohwer said. “The problem is I think this will be a one-and-done year for nesting hens, meaning even prolific re-nesters like mallards won’t attempt to nest again if their first nest fails. And we know that even in a good year, most nests are lost to predators. There’s also a strong probability that duckling survival will be very low. It’s challenging to make ducks without water.”
Indices decreased for many primary species, including mallards (down 48.7 percent, which is the lowest since 1993 but still the 28th highest figure recorded) and pintails (down 68 percent, with the lowest count since 1991). American wigeon declined 49.1 percent and were 15.4 percent below the long-term average. One notable exception was a 47 percent increase in the gadwall index from 2020. Many critical diver species appeared to be in decent shape.
It’s early to say what drought might mean for hunters in 2021, especially considering that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service canceled its breeding population and habitat survey again because of COVID-19. However, Delta said the current situation doesn’t bode well.
“Duck populations remain strong, but I don’t expect a ton of juveniles in the fall flight,” Rohwer said. “Experienced, adult birds are far tougher to decoy, which will challenge hunters — especially in Louisiana, Texas and other regions of the southern United States. Years with low duck production disproportionately affect hunter harvest in the South.”
Szymanski agreed but said his agency will continue to monitor the situation.
“Of course, we’ll do a duck brood survey in July to get another handle on habitat conditions and what we see for production,” he said. “But based on social mannerisms of ducks right now, it seems like there is very little breeding activity happening.”
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.