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Continental duck populations decline, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says in breeding trends report

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the last North American duck breeding population survey report was released in 2019.

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Continental duck populations in the spring of 2022 were down 12% from 2019, the last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service conducted their North American breeding waterfowl survey, the FWS said in a report issued Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
Contributed/North Dakota Game and Fish Department
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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has estimated continental breeding duck populations at 34.2 million, down 12% from the 2019 estimate of 38.9 million and 4% below the long-term average since 1955, conservation group Ducks Unlimited said in reporting results from the survey.

The federal agency announced the estimate Friday in its 2022 report on “Trends in Duck Breeding Populations,” which is based on surveys conducted in May and early June by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service and other partners.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the last FWS duck breeding population survey report was released in 2019.

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Steve Adair, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited.
Contributed/Ducks Unlimited

“Although the beneficial effects of timely precipitation during late winter and spring were evident by high pond counts across the eastern prairies, the total duck estimate in the traditional survey area was the lowest in nearly 20 years,” said Steve Adair, chief scientist for Ducks Unlimited.

Here’s a look at the numbers for a few of the waterfowl species included in the report:

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  • Mallard: 7.223 million down 23% from 9.423 million in 2019 and 9% below the long-term average.
  • Gadwall: 2.665 million, down 18% from 3.258 million in 2019 but up 30% from the long-term average.
  • Blue-winged teal: 6.485 million, up 19% from 5.427 million in 2019 and up 27% from the long-term average.
  • Northern pintail: 1.783 million, down 21% from 2.268 million in 2019 and down 54% from the long-term average.
  • Canvasback: 585,000, down 10% from 651,000 in 2019 and 1% below the long-term average.
  • Scaup: 3.599 million, statistically unchanged from 3.590 million in 2019 and 28% below the long-term average.

“The drop in duck numbers reflects the consequences of low production caused by multiple years of prairie drought, including 2021, which was one of the most severe and widespread in nearly 4 decades,” Adair said.”But the survey revealed some bright spots for duck populations and provided optimism for good production this summer and carry-over of favorable pond conditions into fall and winter.”

May pond counts, at 5.45 million, were up 9% from 4.99 million in 2019 and up 4% from the long-term average.

The breeding surveys that evolved into the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey began in 1947. The primary purpose of the survey is to provide information on spring population size and trajectory for 19 North American duck species or species groups, Canada Geese, American coot and swans, and to evaluate habitat conditions in Prairie-Parkland Canada, through the counting of waterfowl breeding ponds.

“DU’s science team will take some time to digest this report and will soon be sharing more detailed analysis of survey results with our members,” Adair said.

The data is used to inform hunting regulations in the U.S. and Canada and provide information for researching relationships between waterfowl and their habitats, which are critical to effective conservation planning, DU said in a news release.

The results are eagerly awaited by waterfowlers, scientists and other bird enthusiasts. Healthy numbers don’t guarantee duck-filled skies. But knowing the status of duck populations helps hunters plan how and where to budget their time and resources.

Each spring, the FWS and CWS send 12 air crews and five ground crews into the 2-million-acre survey area, which stretches from Alaska’s Seward Peninsula to the shores of Newfoundland, and south nearly to the Nebraska−South Dakota border. The CWS also operates three helicopter air crews that survey portions of eastern Canada. For weeks, crews fly, drive and hike survey routes that have remained largely unchanged for over 50 years.

“This year’s survey revealed what many expected, lower breeding duck populations partly as result of the drought we’ve experienced the last few years,” Adam Putnam, Ducks Unlimited CEO, said in a statement. “While we never like to see these declines, we know that prairie drought can increase wetland productivity and sets the stage for waterfowl success when the water returns, much as it did this spring in parts of the prairie. We will not stop working toward our vision of skies filled with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever.”

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In June, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department estimated the state’s breeding duck numbers at 3.4 million birds, up 16% from 2021 and 38% above the long-term average since 1948. The spring water index was up 616% from 2021, the largest single-year increase on record, the Game and Fish Department reported in June.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in August estimated total breeding duck numbers for all species excluding scaup at 567,000 – 18% below the 2019 estimate and 9% below the long-term average. A late spring likely meant that blue-winged teal, a species that migrates relatively late in the season, were still south of Minnesota when the survey began, the DNR said. Based on the survey results, production is expected to be below average for both ducks and geese in Minnesota, the DNR said.

Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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