Overall bird numbers remain good, but hunting will likely be more difficult
After years of mostly good news, waterfowlers now face a tough reality: Poor breeding conditions in the drought-stricken prairie pothole region have led to decreased duck production, likely resulting in a smaller fall flight than hunters have seen in years.
“This is a unique year in that the prairie pothole region — the most important duck production area on the planet — is almost universally dry,” Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl, said in a press release. “A lot of the prairies were dry the past two springs as well, but at least there were pockets of areas with good wetland conditions. But this year, we likely had poor duck production due to many birds overflying the prairies, and those that stayed showed reduced re-nesting effort and low brood survival. There will be far fewer juveniles in the fall flight, and that’s unfortunate, because the best seasons are always those when you’ve got an abundance of young ducks winging south.”
Delta delivered its analysis even though the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey — a critical barometer of the fall flight that’s been conducted since 1955 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service — was canceled for the second consecutive year because of COVID-19. Several states held surveys, including North Dakota, where the effects of drought were striking. The state’s game and fish department estimated an 80% decline in wetlands from 2020, and the breeding duck estimate of 2.9 million marked a 27% decrease from 2020.
Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said observations from the annual mid-July duck production survey indicate the state’s 2021 fall flight will be down 36% from 2020 and similar to the 1970, 1979, and 1994 flights.
“North Dakota’s survey is the bad news we knew was coming,” Rohwer said. “The reduction in water is staggering. It’s the highest percentage decrease in the history of the North Dakota survey.”
Delta said blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and gadwalls likely experienced average to below-average production. However, other critical species fared worse, including mallards and, to a greater degree, pintails, wigeon and canvasbacks.
Pacific Flyway conditions also looked poor, as drought has swept through California, Oregon, British Columbia and most of Alberta. Many wetlands were dry and likely produced nothing. However, eastern Canada enjoyed excellent breeding conditions, and Delta believes that could fuel strong production for many Atlantic Flyway ducks, including mallards, wood ducks, black ducks and ring-necked ducks.
Not all the news from the prairies was bad. Rohwer said populations of adult breeding ducks remain high, although those birds are typically more difficult to hunt. North Dakota’s breeding-duck estimate remained 19% higher than the long-term average. And long-term data indicates that most duck populations are well above average, including a 2019 estimate of 38.9 million breeding ducks, which was about 10% above average.
Further, periodic drought cycles actually rejuvenate wetlands by increasing vegetative growth, which then provides foods for hens and ducklings when water conditions improve.
“Assuming we have better water next year, ducks will rebound quickly,” Rohwer said. “We could have outstanding duck production.”
The reduced fall flight will not affect the 2021-'22 season structure, as waterfowl regulations are already set. And Rohwer said bad news from the prairies shouldn’t dissuade waterfowlers from pursuing their passion.
“There are still plenty of ducks, and we feel the liberal regulations in place for the coming season are entirely appropriate,” he said. “Hunting has little to no effect on the ebb and flow of breeding duck populations, because primarily we shoot juveniles. Low duck production is likely to result in challenging hunting, but the idea you shouldn’t hunt — whether you fear harming duck populations or experiencing a lack of success — is absurd. Weather events such as cold and precipitation have just as much an effect on hunter success, and I’m confident plenty of people will have good seasons.”
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.