Duck numbers up: Survey tallies gain in North Dakota spring waterfowl population
BISMARCK — Spring duck numbers in North Dakota were up 23 percent from last year and 110 percent higher than the long-term average from 1948 to 1913, the Game and Fish Department said this week.
According to Mike Szymanski, waterfowl biologist for Game and Fish in Bismarck, results from the annual spring breeding duck survey in May showed an index of 4.9 million birds.
All species increased from their 2013 estimates, Szymanski said, except canvasbacks (down 7.9 percent, but still 41 percent above long-term) and ruddy ducks (down 1.2 percent). Redheads (up 64 percent), green-winged teal (42 percent), blue-winged teal (34 percent), wigeon (33 percent) and scaup (28 percent) showed the largest increases.
Mallards and blue-wings were the most abundant ducks on the survey, combining for 48 percent of the total.
“Some of the later nesting dabbling duck species, such as blue-wings and shovelers, were just settling into breeding areas so their counts may have been biased slightly high this year, simply because of a cold spring and their migration lagging behind other birds,” Szymanski said. “Mallards, an early nesting species, were well into nesting and settled on breeding areas. Diving ducks pushed through the state well ahead of the survey, so we feel good about those numbers.”
Duck numbers during the past two decades are the highest since 1948, when North Dakota began keeping survey records. Szymanski attributes the trend to abundant water and good nesting cover.
“It’s pretty amazing to see the top 20 breeding duck indices have all come in the past 20 years,” he said. “We had Conservation Reserve Program acres on the landscape, and then water came in a big way. It’s safe to say we are still riding abundant populations stemming from near perfect conditions. It’s hard to say how they will fair in the future now that a large portion of their nesting cover has disappeared through CRP expirations.”
North Dakota’s duck population follows a continental trend of increasing numbers. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Wednesday said duck populations and habitat conditions across the northern U.S. and Canada have improved from last year.
The preliminary estimate for the total duck population is 49.2 million birds, an 8 percent increase over last year’s estimate of 45.6 million and 43 percent above the long term average. Populations of most species, such as mallards and blue-winged teal, remain significantly above the long-term average while others, such as scaup and pintail are still below.
The service estimated continental mallard numbers at 10.9 million birds, similar to last year and 42 percent higher than the long-term average. Blue-winged teal, at 8.5 million, were up 10 percent from 7.7 million in 2013 and 75 percent higher than the long-term average.
Pond counts across the U.S. and prairie Canada were estimated at 7.2 million, 40 percent above the long-term average.
North Dakota’s spring water index increased 110 percent from 2013. The water index is based on basins with water and doesn’t necessarily represent the amount of water contained in wetlands or the type of wetlands represented.
Szymanski said water was more abundant in the northwest and northeast portions of the state. In addition, he said western North Dakota was wetter than average.
“Breeding conditions on the prairies can always change in a hurry,” Szymanski said. “Last year, conditions were looking OK when we conducted the survey, but there was some question as to whether it would dry out prior to brood rearing. Then several inches of rain fell and wetlands used for brood rearing improved. This year, conditions are looking better in those wetlands, but a hot and dry spell could change that.”
The loss of CRP acres was evident during the survey, Szymanski said, as large stretches of land that had been converted to cropland were obvious.
“The loss of grass will hurt production of ducks and other grassland nesting birds,” he said. “However, the recent overly wet conditions are helping bridge the gap a little bit for ducks.”
Szymanski said having a lot of pairs present in May is a good thing, but the July brood survey will provide a better idea of duck production and insight into what hunters should expect this fall.
Minnesota ducks decline
While North Dakota duck numbers are up this spring, populations declined across Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources said.
Based on results of the DNR’s spring waterfowl surveys, the breeding mallard population was estimated at 257,000, down 12 percent from last year and 1 percent below the 10-year average; that’s still 13 percent higher than the long-term average.
The DNR attributed the decline to another unusual spring and late ice-out.
The blue-winged teal population is 102,000 this year, compared with 144,000 in 2013 and 53 percent below the long-term average of 215,000 blue-winged teal.
The combined populations of other ducks, such as ring-necked ducks, wood ducks, gadwalls, northern shovelers, canvasbacks and redheads was 116,000, 53 percent lower than last year and 35 percent below the long-term average.
The estimated number of wetlands was 343,000, up 33 percent from last year and 28 percent above the long-term average.
“While we’re seeing declines in this year’s counts, the survey results can be affected by weather and visibility of waterfowl from aircraft,” said Steve Cordts, DNR waterfowl specialist. He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service later this summer will release continental waterfowl estimates, which may provide a better indication of what hunters can expect this fall.
The DNR has conducted the survey each spring since 1968, covering 40 percent of the state that includes much of the best remaining duck breeding habitat in Minnesota.
Geese: Steady to higher
The DNR estimated this year’s Canada goose population in Minnesota at 244,000 geese, which was similar to last year’s estimate of 250,000. The number does not include an additional estimated 17,500 breeding Canada geese in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.
Cordts said production this year will be better than last year.
The DNR will announce this fall’s waterfowl hunting regulations later this summer. The Minnesota waterfowl report is online at mndnr.gov/hunting/waterfowl.
Wetland losses mount
A new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region declined by an estimated 74,340 acres from 1997 to 2009 — an average annual net loss of 6,200 acres.
“Extreme weather patterns, rising agricultural commodity prices and oil and gas development are threatening millions of acres of prairie wetlands, putting further pressure on the most valuable breeding area for ducks in the Americas,” Service Director Dan Ashe said in a statement. “This report highlights the need for continued vigilance in monitoring and protecting the Prairie Pothole Region to ensure it remains healthy for waterfowl for generations to come.”
Ducks Unlimited said the decline, which amounts to more than 107,000 wetland basins, could add up to a loss of breeding habitat for 100,000 duck pairs in the Prairie Pothole Region, widely known as North America’s “duck factory.”
“What’s even more concerning for waterfowl is we know this loss trend is continuing,” DU chief scientist Scott Yaich said. “Our research points to wetland numbers and health as being one of the most important factors in determining populations for waterfowl. Waterbirds, shorebirds and other wildlife are also dependent on healthy wetlands.”
The full report, “Status and Trends of Wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region,” is available at fws.gov/wetlands/index.html.