"Where are all the ducks?"
I hear that question a lot.
"It's not like the good ol' days."
I hear that a lot too.
It always seems like things were better in the past. Sometimes all it takes is a fresh look on the present to understand that times are actually really good right now.
The recent duck population estimate put out by the US Fish and Wildlife Service has the 5th highest duck population numbers on record.
While it's true that ducks and geese may not be exactly in the same places that they have been historically, they're still here. They might have moved to some new areas but that's probably due to human impact. Conversely, the high numbers of ducks in North America can also be attributed to human impact.
"If you look at where the big gains have happened, for example gadwall (had) their highest breeding estimate ever," John Devney, Vice President of U.S. Policy for Delta Waterfowl said. "Shoveler numbers are incredibly high, blue-winged teal are incredibly high.
With numbers like that, how can someone think the ducks are gone?
"In a place like Minnesota," Devney continued. "The bluebill was the bread and butter duck and certainly bluebills aren't as numerous as they used to be."
Pintail numbers are also down and when you factor in these two popular ducks, hunters can look at the waterfowl population negatively, despite gains in other species.
"I don't think anyone is doing back hand springs about shovelers being up this year," Devney said laughing. "If you go back and look in the 1950's, mallards, pintails and bluebills were the most numerous ducks."
Mallards are still abundant, but now you might see more gadwalls, blue wings and shovelers as opposed to the pintail and scaup. To some degree, this is obviously an issue to veteran waterfowlers. But to a lot of today's duck hunters? Aside from wingshooters that prefer mallards in the field, shooting ducks is, well, shooting ducks.
So, why are the pintails down?
"There's a number of problems," Devney said. "One, is they're a duck that's always been a western prairie duck and when you look at wetland loss rates, including the temporary and seasonal wetlands in western Canada, we've lost a ton of the most important wetlands for pintails."
"Pintails are also nesting in stubble and it's a bad strategy." When they nest in stubble, they become literal sitting ducks for predation and, if they're lucky enough to avoid getting eaten, they succumb to spring seeding operations.
Dry conditions in the prairie pothole region of the Dakota's and western Minnesota caused pintails to fly further north to nest and when they do that, they tend have fewer young according to Devney.
What does that mean for you?
Habitat is the always the key when it comes to conservation. There are two easy ways that hunters provide the most habitat for wildlife. One, is the duck stamp.
The Federal Duck Stamp is arguably the best program in the country aimed at wildlife conservation. It's simple, it's required by law and almost the entire cost of the stamp goes back into conservation.
Ninety-eight cents of every dollar spent on the duck stamp goes to purchase or lease land that benefits waterfowl and other wildlife.
I'll pause here to let that sink in.
Was that enough time? Show me another government program that offers that type of return. It doesn't exist.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service's website here, this is why the stamp was created:
In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act (or Duck Stamp Act), and an increasingly concerned nation took firm action to stop the destruction of wetlands vital to the survival of migratory waterfowl. Under the act, all waterfowl hunters 16 years of age and over must annually buy and carry a Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp - better known today as a Federal Duck Stamp.
It's easy to forget to buy one, but I'd encourage people to buy two based on the benefit the stamp has.
Hunters also buy licenses. Those licenses are essentially a user fee that pays for wildlife management agencies, such as the Minnesota DNR. Without hunters buying licenses, there'd be very little money to pay the people who manage ducks, deer, pheasants and all the other critters that roam our northwoods.
Farmers struggle with Canada geese. The state pays out reimbursement money to farmers who suffer crop depredation to geese, deer and other birds and animals. Hunters help defray those costs by lowering the number of geese (or deer) in those areas.
But, quite possibly the biggest way hunters help wildlife is with the Pittman-Robertson Act. Before 1937, the U.S. Government implemented an 11% tax on ammunition and firearms. This basically went into the U.S. Treasury to use however they wanted. The new Act took the tax revenue and was redistributed to the states to use only on their fish and game departments.
According to wikipedia, this is how the money is to be spent:
Acceptable options include research, surveys, management of wildlife and/or habitat, and acquisition or lease of land. Once a plan has been approved, the state must pay the full cost and is later reimbursed for up to 75% of that cost through P–R funds. The 25% of the cost that the state must pay generally comes from its hunting license sales. If, for whatever reason, any of the federal money does not get spent, after two years that money is then reallocated to the Migratory Bird Conservation Act.
This has resulted in billions of dollars being spent on conservation, thanks to hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts.
These are just a couple of the simple ways that anyone can contribute to the conservation of wildlife, from the comfort of your couch with a link to the Federal Duck Stamp or by going to your local sporting goods store and purchasing outdoor equipment. Even purchasing a small game license - whether or not you plan to hunt - will benefit wildlife in your state.
So while some popular species of ducks have shown declines, hunters and game managers have had major impacts on other duck species thanks to two simple ways of creating more habitat. This, in turn, has created the highest population of ducks on record in recent years, and that has waterfowl hunters like myself excited to strap on a pair of waders and trudge through the sludge on a frosty October morning.