Northern Wilds Magazine
In the past, mallard hens were protected from overshooting to conserve the breeding populations. Protective regulations, including a bag limit of one hen mallard and a 4 p.m. closure during the early part of the hunting season have been changed and removed. | PAUL RANELLI
Points North

Is waterfowl conservation slipping away?

If you felt the ground shake recently, it wasn’t a minor earthquake. It was Minnesota’s deceased waterfowl biologists, lions of the 20th century conservation movement, turning in their graves.

These were men (as best I know they were all men) who took pride in Minnesota as a bountiful producer of wild ducks that crossed the continent in great migrations. They took pride in rediscovery of the giant Canada goose subspecies, which had been declared extinct, and its subsequent recovery to abundance. They took pride in the visionary achievement of taking steps to save the prairie’s rapidly diminishing wetlands through fee-title acquisitions for the public, creating what became Minnesota’s vast network of state wildlife management areas, providing habitat not only for waterfowl, but a host of flora and fauna.

As waterfowl managers, they placed a far greater value on a duck in the marsh rather than in a hunter’s hand. Recognizing Minnesota was a state where ducks migrated to nest, they treated so-called “local ducks” as principal rather than interest, creating regulations intended to protect them from harvest early in the hunting season before the migrant flights from elsewhere arrived.

Thus, was born a rule, unique to Minnesota, where waterfowl ended at 4 p.m. daily during the early portion of the duck season. Although some hunters grumbled about the restriction of hunting time, the intent of the 4 p.m. closure was intended to protect ducks, especially mallard hens, and provide better hunting. During the afternoon, hunters would pick up their decoys and paddle through marsh vegetation to flush resting ducks, a practice called jump-shooting. Hen mallards were vulnerable to afternoon jump-shooting as they were still recovering from the rigors of brood rearing and summer molt, making them slow-flying, relatively easy targets. Every local hen that wound up in the bag was one that wouldn’t be returning to Minnesota the following spring to raise another brood. Giving ducks respite from afternoon shooting also meant they were less likely to be driven away from the marsh by hunting pressure, an obvious benefit for hunters.

Minnesota hunters were conservation-minded, too, supporting a statewide Minnesota Waterfowl Association, which initiated and supported wetland conservation projects and weighed in on waterfowl management decisions and regulations. Some hunters voluntarily led the way; conserving ducks that flew into their decoys by shooting only drakes. As with many species, one male can breed with more than one female, so allowing the hens to fly away meant more would return in the spring.

Although North America’s waterfowl populations were decimated by unrestricted market hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the actions of conservation-minded politicians like Teddy Roosevelt, who established the first national wildlife refuges, and visionary authors and educators like Aldo Leopold who laid the groundwork for waterfowl recovery by pioneer wildlife biologists. They managed for abundance, believing that seeing skies alive with ducks satisfied hunters more than the number of birds in the bag. They devised species-specific bag limits to avoid killing too many less-common ducks, such as canvasbacks. When the prairie breeding grounds were stricken with drought, they dialed back both bag limits and hunting seasons to ensure healthy breeding populations would exist when water returned to the wetlands.

Unfortunately, there were aspects of prairies and wetlands beyond the control of waterfowl biologists.

I once asked an elderly waterfowl conservationist if he ever thought, when younger, that the American landscape would change as much as it had over the course of his life. He looked at me thoughtfully, then said, “No, I didn’t.”

That change can be summed up as the relentless development and industrialization of the landscape, which has left little room for wildlife, especially creatures, like ducks, that depend upon healthy wetlands and grasslands. When we take away habitat—the place where wildlife lives—the creatures don’t pack up and move to another swamp. They disappear.

Ducks haven’t disappeared from Minnesota, but there are far fewer than there used to be. As the ducks have disappeared, so have the duck hunters. They have fewer places to hunt than they once did. And it is a rare day in Minnesota when the autumn sky is alive with ducks. It is telling that after more than 50 years, the hunter-based membership of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association declined to the point where the organization was dissolved in 2019.

The diminishment of duck hunting has arguably been paralleled by the diminishment of waterfowl management. This is especially apparent in 2021. Vast swaths of western North America, including the prime prairie breeding grounds are gripped in relentless drought, yet the federal level policy makers who set the parameters for state duck seasons and bag limits decided upon the same liberal option they’ve used year after year. These days, it seems the overarching vision is not to see skies alive with ducks, but to give hunters the chance to kill what few birds they do see. The concept of protecting hens so they could return to breed the following spring has largely gone by the wayside. Minnesota hunters can kill two hen mallards in a bag limit of four. Beginning this year, there will no longer be a 4 p.m. closure during the early season. Restrictions on motorized duck decoys, which many hunters believe are more attractive to ducks than traditional decoys (otherwise they wouldn’t use them) have been removed.

The only possible rationale for making it easier for hunters to kill a diminishing waterfowl resource is that there are too few hunters left to make a difference on the overall population and loosening the rules may encourage those remaining hunters to stay in the game and keep buying licenses. That’s probably a zero-sum proposition. Ducks and hunters are the losers.

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