Good news and bad news for next season’s duck hunters

Good news and  bad news for next season’s duck hunters

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has already come out with the 2016-17 waterfowl hunting regulations. That might sound a little premature, since we just got through last season’s duck hunts, which were not nearly as good as expected. According to the latest data from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the USFWS, the reason duck hunts were so poor in Southeast Texas and other coastal regions of the state was due to an abundance of food in north Texas and farther up in the Central Flyway. As long and there is plenty of water and food, waterfowl don’t normally fly farther south than they need to.

As to why the new regulations are already out, the feds say this is a purposeful, systemic shift.

“Marking the first year of a new regulations-setting process, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has released the 2016-2017 waterfowl season frameworks,” according to Kyle Wintersteen, with Delta Waterfowl. “Moving forward, frameworks (will be) proposed during the winter months — not after completion of spring breeding population surveys, as was protocol for nearly half a century. The shift alleviates the need to rush critical decisions in time for season openers.”

“It provides an ample period to analyze monitoring data such as population surveys, hunter-harvest surveys and banding data,” said Ken Richkus with the USFWS. “The former regulations process was always delivered in abbreviated fashion. It didn’t allow a 30-day public comment period, and it put state agencies against the wall to publish waterfowl brochures.”

According to Richkus, the new regulations process won’t cause them to be more conservative with their regulations.

So far the feds have come up with a 2016-2017 duck season that is very similar to what we had last season. Duck hunters in all four flyways will again have liberal season dates: 60 days in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, 74 days in the Central Flyway, and 107 days in the Pacific Flyway. The frameworks include a six-duck limit in the Central Flyway, which is what we are in on the right side of Texas. Liberal goose seasons remain largely unchanged, and a 16-day teal season is again proposed for the Central flyway.

Most species-specific bag limits mirror last season. Two pintails, two canvasbacks and two redheads are allotted nationwide. Five mallards will be allowed in the Central flyway, only two of which may be hens. The limit on bluebills is three in all flyways except the Atlantic.

One negative to consider is that the conditions for nesting ducks are below average.

“A variety of variables affect duck production,” says Wintersteen. “But one key requirement of breeding waterfowl can hugely impact the size of the fall flight: water. If an ample snowpack and timely rains saturate the prairie pothole region — most importantly, generating temporary and seasonal wetlands — then duck production is strong. This scenario has annually played out for the majority of the past two decades. Unfortunately, the prairie is drier this March than it has been for some time.”

“The prairies entered winter dry and ended winter dry,” said Matt Chouinard, waterfowl programs manager for Delta Waterfowl. “Most of prairie Canada and certainly the eastern Dakotas had little snowfall.”

Precipitation maps show that a large swath of prairie Canada — a crucial band of wetlands along the southern halves of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba — received 40 to 50 percent less precipitation than normal this winter. Also, unseasonable warmth is evaporating what little snow remains, ensuring the moisture won’t be present when ducks begin nesting in late April and early May.

“The prairie is essentially snowless in southwest Manitoba and everywhere south of Calgary and Regina,” said Jim Fisher, director of conservation policy for Delta Waterfowl. “Calgary’s forecast is 50 degrees for the next several days, while the remainder of the prairie is above freezing or warmer. That’s very unusual. This has been the warmest, driest winter of the past 20 years, so there’s reason to be concerned about the available wetlands for nesting ducks. There are still about two months to turn things around, but the Canadian prairie desperately needs moisture.”

“The Dakotas are experiencing mild temperatures, and they’re way below average in terms of moisture,” Chouinard said. “Every bit of snow here in Bismarck has melted, and a lot of Canada geese are already headed north. It’s not all doom and gloom, as plenty of the semi-permanent wetlands are holding water, but the temporary and seasonal wetlands that really boost duck production aren’t appearing on the landscape. Even the ponds that are wet contain significantly less water.”

What happens if the dry conditions continue?

“We’ll lose the duck-production benefits of temporary and seasonal wetlands,” Chouinard said. “Many ducks will opt to fly over the prairie and nest in the parklands, where production tends to decrease, and in the boreal forest, where they’re much less productive.”

If Mother Nature stays the course, 2016 could be the worst year for duck production in recent memory, according to Delta Waterfowl.

“We’ve had a good run of abundant moisture since 1994, but at some point a drought is inevitable,” Fisher said. “This could well be it.”