WILDLIFE: Waterfowl breeding numbers increase 8 percent

Conservations groups are hailing the results of the duck breeding population surveys done in May and early June. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in a report, “2014 Trends in Duck Breeding Populations,” showed an 8 percent increase over the 2013 survey results.

Total populations were estimated at 49.2 million breeding ducks, up from last year’s estimate of 45.6 million birds, and 43 percent higher than the 1955-2013 average.

This continues a three-year trend of exceptional population numbers for many species, due in large part to favorable water conditions in breeding areas.

“It looks like another good waterfowl breeding year for a good portion of the prairies and the boreal forest,” Ducks Unlimited chief executive officer Dale Hall said in a news release.

“Precipitation in the form of snow and rain has provided sufficient water to fill important wetlands in key breeding habitats. We hope this will result in good production and another great flight of birds migrating in the fall.”

The main factor for duck breeding success is wetland and upland habitat conditions in the key breeding landscapes of the prairies and the boreal forest, according to the group’s release. Conditions observed across the U.S. and Canadian survey areas during the count were improved or similar to last year. Total pond counts in the U.S. and Canada showed 7.2 million ponds, similar to the 2013 estimate and 40 percent above the long-term average, according to the Fish and Wildlife report.

There were, however, some areas of concern.

There is a need for more moisture in the western boreal forest and in parts of southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, said Paul Schmidt, the group’s chief conservation officer.

But, Schmidt pointed out, habitat conditions were rated as excellent in Alaska and good in much of Northwest Territory and Alberta.

The survey, done by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service, covers more than 2 million square miles of waterfowl habitat across Alaska, north-central and northeastern United States, and south-central, eastern and northern Canada.

Of the 10 key species surveyed, only pintail and canvasback populations showed a decline. Pintails dropped by 3 percent to 3.22 million, while canvasbacks were down 13 percent, at 685,000.

These strong numbers and very good water conditions should translate to a good hunting outlook this fall and winter. Still, it is not a guarantee hunters will be shooting their limits, said Frank Rowher, president of Delta Waterfowl.

“We know that when breeding duck numbers are high and duck production is strong, hunters shoot more ducks,” Rohwer said in a new release from his group. “However, three other factors are probably as important as the breeding duck count. Weather is most critical, because that drives duck migrations. The site conditions such as food and available water at your honey hole impacts hunting success, as does the amount of hunting pressure.”

State hunting statistics from 2013 help prove Rowher’s point.

Despite fairly strong duck numbers in 2013, the total statewide harvest was down 19 percent compared to the 2012 harvest. Much of the decline can be blamed on poor weather conditions during the hunting season and a lack of water in key duck habitat areas.

The spring surveys provide the data that will be used to help set hunting season dates and bag limits.

Representatives from the four flyway councils – Pacific, Central, Mississippi and Atlantic – and the Fish and Wildlife Service’s regulations committee will meet later this month to recommend the season structure and bag limits for 2014-15.

Fish and wildlife agencies in the individual states will set their own specific seasons, using the federal framework of season length, bag limit and dates.

Species estimates

Mallards: 10.9 million, similar to the 2013 estimate and 42 percent above the long-term average.

Gadwall: 3.8 million, similar to 2013 and 102 percent above the long-term average.

American wigeon: 3.1 million, 18 percent above the 2013 estimate and 20 percent above the long-term average.

Green-winged teal: 3.4 million similar to last year’s estimate and 69 percent above the long-term average.

Blue-winged teal: 8.5 million, similar to last year and 75 percent above the long-term average.

Northern shovelers: 5.3 million, similar to 2013 estimate and 114 percent above the long-term average.

Northern pintails: 3.2 million, similar to 2013 and 20 percent below the long-term average.

Scaup: 4.6 million, similar to last year and similar to the long-term average.

Learn more: View all the data and get a species-by-species breakdown at ducks.org/DuckNumbers.

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640 jeff.mayor@