The North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDGFD) rated wetland conditions as poor to fair for the 2021 fall season, with a 44% decline in duck hunting wetlands since last year's fall.

Migratory game bird biologist Andy Dinges, of the NDGFD, said duck hunting wetlands are 45% lower than the 2003 to 2020 average.

“We are experiencing fall wetland conditions similar to what occurred from 2006 to 2008, which was our last prolonged dry period throughout the state,” Dinges said in a NDGFD press release.

He said this was caused by little to no snow melt in the spring and insufficient summer rainfall.

“We have received some much needed rainfall in the last month or so, but it hasn’t been enough to really improve wetland conditions,” Dinges said. “Most of the state has only received 50-75% of normal precipitation since last year when the fall wetland survey was conducted.”

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Casey Anderson, a 20-year NDGFD veteran, was promoted to chief of the wildlife division Tuesday. In a phone interview Wednesday with The Press, Anderson said the dry conditions caused changes to duck breeding patterns. Although duck hunters may need to venture away from their usual spots, Anderson said that there will still be good opportunities to harvest birds in the state if they do hunters do their homework.

“You’re going to have to do your scouting and figure out where the ducks are because it’s not going to be as easy as pulling up an aerial photo and saying, 'There’s water here.' Because if it’s a photo from last year or the year before on, say Google Earth or something, that water might not be there this year,” Anderson said.

Hunters should also take into account of fire risk levels, he added.

“You’ve got to be cognizant of the fire danger out there, some things are not permitted because of it. We always tell people to go on and look at the counties or areas they’re hunting in," he said.

Hunters should be careful where they’re walking and driving, Anderson continued. Some ground may look dry on the surface, but mud beneath can cause soft spots.

The dry conditions have also altered duck breeding patterns.

“They didn’t settle here in North Dakota to breed. The ones that did breed weren’t as successful because of wetland conditions,” Anderson said.

Overall migration patterns will generally remain the same but the places ducks choose to stop throughout the Central Flyway will see more variation, he said.

North Dakota is part of the Central Flyway, one of four North American waterfowl migration zones. It spans nearly all across North Dakota and parts of Minnesota. To the west, it covers approximately 80% of Montana. On the north and south sides, the Central Flyway stretches toward the Northwest Territories and Nunavut Region of Canada, and south to include most of Mexico down to Panama.

“It won’t really change them moving down that flyway. But what is going to change is where they stay and how long they stay. If they don’t find water, they’re going to have to move,” Anderson said. “So you’re going to see it change their movement within that flyway. They may be farther east or farther west… because of where the wetlands are available. But they’ll still travel down that flyway. And of course, a lot of it depends on how fast we freeze up when they do find water.”