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Ducks and the prairie cycle (continued)

There are no silver bullets

Pretty much the same ideas have surfaced with each drought.

The idea of stocking pen-raised ducks makes a regular appearance. In 1935, William Adams, director of Fish and Game of New York state, said, "Let's raise a duck for every one we kill."

Through decades of trying throughout the continent, stocking was repeatedly shown to be ineffective for bolstering wild duck populations.

Predator control is another management practice that gets increased attention during each population downturn. It can be an effective tool to temporarily benefit production from relatively small areas, but it cannot measurably affect populations on a large scale.

The issue of hunting has always fostered the greatest debates. In 1935, one organization stated the opinion that "whatever the differing beliefs . . . as to the principal causes of . . . decline, the fact remains that control of killing of waterfowl by man is the only means we have of quickly contributing to the restoration of an adequate breeding stock." Thus, the passionate urge to do something and the desire to find the quick fix seem to triangulate on hunting.

Cries for closed seasons arose during the 1930s, 1960s, and 1980s. In April 1935, Nature magazine even stated that "such a course must be followed if the dwindling species are to be saved from extinction."

Although the duck season has never been closed, these calls invariably energize advocates of the other end of the philosophical spectrum who believe that hunting has no impact on the following year's fall flight. Like most things in life, reality is somewhere in between and considerably more complex. In addition, the details of these relationships vary considerably among species.

Relatively recent data help illustrate why a completely closed season would not be the quick population fix that some have believed.

From 1988-1990, the season length and mallard bag limit in the two eastern flyways was 30 days and two drakes (one hen). During that period, total annual mortality of adult hens was about 40-45 percent, and about 7 percent of the adult female population was harvested.

Proponents of a closed season would quickly point out that most of those hens would be alive to breed if they were not harvested. True enough, but the small proportion of hens that would have been "saved" by closing a season at that time (up to 7 percent) would still have faced drought-parched prairies when they flew north.

Like all the other drought-displaced hens, then, they would either not have nested or may have done so with limited success. Overall, the benefit to the following fall flight would likely have been less than a 1 percent difference in population size.

Would that be worth the social and habitat costs of closing the season?

Probably not, especially in light of the birds' explosive potential to rebound when the water returns. However, even though closed seasons would not be a silver bullet for reversing low populations caused by drought, seasons must be appropriately conservative when population levels are low.

Fortunately, the passion that drives so many of us to need to do something has produced some positive results over the years. The challenge is to resist the urge to affix blame or look for the silver bullet, and to channel our passion and energies into positive attitudes and actions.

Proactive protection

"But, during periods of low populations, differing philosophies concerning the application of harvest restrictions often result in a drain of time, manpower and money to settle disputes between various interests. This situation is paradoxical. Less risk is affordable during times of low populations and duck managers [and sportsmen] should be more united in efforts to reverse downward trends."
— Ken Babcock and Rollin Sparrowe, 1989, from, "Balancing Expectations With Reality in Duck Harvest Management"

"We have faced this problem before, such as in the 1960s when drought contributed to driving duck populations to previous lows. We have known for several decades that breeding habitat, and also migration and wintering habitat, were the key to both the short- and long-term welfare of ducks."
— Rollin Sparrowe and Ken Babcock, 1989, from "A Turning Point for Duck Harvest Management"

So, with parts of the prairies in drought's grasp, what do we do?

We should first take some solace in appreciating that drought is necessary to maintain healthy prairie ecosystems. While in drought, the prairies are, in effect, recharging for the amazing recoveries that we have seen every time the water returned during the last century.

Despite the predictions of doom that arose with each population downturn, most of our duck populations are in good shape relative to the available habitat. To be sure, some species, such as pintails and scaup, require serious additional attention. The wet 1990s, just a handful of years ago, reminded us how productive most of these species can be, and how rapidly their population can bounce back when all habitat components are in place.

We need not just sit back and passively wait for the rains to return, however. We should, for example, be prepared to accept that when ducks are forced into the less productive northern areas, some commensurate reductions in harvest are necessary. We should all work to manage our expectations of this resource.

For most of us, the good old days were fewer than five years ago. Duck harvests of the 1990s were comparable to those of the 1970s. However, there are only about half as many hunters now. From that perspective, we have become accustomed to seasons that are twice as good as those of a generation ago.

While it's reasonable to expect ever faster computers and improving cell phone coverage, it is not reasonable to expect continuous growth in the harvest of the renewable, but finite, duck population. So, if our individual hunting seasons don't go as well as those in recent memory, pausing to reflect on that inescapable reality might help us keep things in perspective (and increase our enjoyment of our time afield).

Finally, as agreed by virtually everyone since the early 1900s, habitat conservation is the key to helping populations through the inevitable droughts. Waterfowl have repeatedly shown that they can take care of themselves within the limits of the available habitat.

To sustain and improve the long-term capabilities of those habitats we must aggressively protect existing high-quality habitats. We must increase the available habitat by restoring wetland basins that attract ducks to areas with suitable nesting cover, and establish cover where there are adequate basins that will fill again when the rains return.

Recognizing that the millions of acres of Conservation Reserve Program lands were critical to the duck populations of the 1990s, we must focus strongly on singular opportunities such as federal farmland conservation programs. In effect, we must concentrate on keeping and restoring habitat so it can be explosively productive again when the water returns.

On another front, northern areas carry many ducks through the drought years, and there is a growing appreciation of the extent to which these habitats contribute to overall annual production. They are also the primary breeding habitat for some species. In recognition of emerging threats, Ducks Unlimited and its partners are placing increased emphasis on conservation programs in areas such as the western boreal forest and Pacific Northwest.

The passion that we all share for waterfowl can motivate us to accomplish great things. We must focus our energies on actions that will provide the greatest benefits, now and into the future, for the continent's duck populations.

Let's resolve to work together when we go through the next lean time, each of us contributing in the ways that we best can to address the primary challenges. And let's remember that the most important element in securing the long-term future of duck populations is to secure the long-term future of their habitats.

"No one community, no one State, and no one nation can handle this . . . alone."
— Ira Gabrielson, 1943, from The Ducks, Geese and Swans of North America, by Francis Kortright

. . . a statement as true today as it was 60 years ago.

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