Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: In Waterfowl Management, Conservation Has Left the Room

By Shawn Perich

A couple of weeks ago I took some long walks in the grouse woods, wandering down overgrown trails where people seldom go. It’s been a wet year, so the clay and mud that pass for top soil on the North Shore were moist and soft. Surprisingly, all of the muddy areas on the trails were pockmarked with moose tracks.

It’s been years since I’ve encountered that much moose sign, even here in some of Minnesota’s best moose country. This was not a one-time observation. During extensive rambles along the back roads of Cook County during 2014, I noticed an encouraging uptick in moose tracks and sightings. This leads me to believe—dare I say it—that closing northeastern Minnesota’s three, tribal and state moose hunting seasons made a noticeable difference in moose abundance, at least in the accessible places where most moose hunting occurs.

In the world of professional wildlife management, such a statement is akin to heresy. For starters, I’m not scientist, so most wildlife professionals would dismiss my observations from time spent in the woods as mere “anecdotal evidence.” More to the point, many wildlife managers believe as dogma the premise that regulated hunting removes only a natural surplus of game and thus doesn’t affect the overall population. As a result, wildlife managers often resist calls from hunters or others to impose more restrictive regulations or bag limits or–heaven forbid!—close a hunting season to protect a wildlife population.

Sometimes wildlife managers do the right thing by resisting calls for more protective regulations, but not always. It is fair to say folks living in moose country wanted to close the moose season long before tribal and state wildlife managers agreed to do so. During the 1980s, fisheries managers, secure in the belief that a few spawning trout could sustain an abundant Lake Superior steelhead population, resisted all attempts by anglers to move toward a very restrictive bag limit and, eventually, catch-and-release regulations. After a near collapse of the population under the old rules, steelhead are now more abundant than ever with catch-and-release regulations.

Professional wildlife management was responsible for the restoration of North American wildlife after the destructive era of settlement and market hunting. Certainly, we would have little wildlife today were it not for their efforts. During the modern era, wildlife declines, such as the current situation with pheasants, are caused by forces outside of their control. In the case of pheasants, politicians and ag industry lobbyists manipulated farm policy to encourage the rapid expansion of two row crops—corn and soybeans—by plowing up grasslands and draining wetlands that provided pheasant habitat.

Pheasants only survive a year or two in the wild, so the ups and downs of the population are largely influenced by available habitat and weather conditions. Since hunters are only allowed to kill cock birds, which will breed with more than one hen, hunting doesn’t affect the reproductive capability of the population. In contrast, wildlife managers allow hunters to kill does in order to affect the overall abundance of deer populations. In Minnesota, where deer numbers are currently at low ebb, some folks believe wildlife managers allowed hunters to kill too many does.

Wildlife managers also regulate the harvest of females to protect the overall population of ducks. Unlike pheasants, ducks may live for several years. Older hens generally have better reproductive success than young ducks nesting for the first time. A generation ago, wildlife managers used regulations to discourage duck hunters from shooting hens. Conservation organizations used public relations campaigns to do the same. The reasons for doing so was because drought and habitat loss had brought North America’s duck populations to historic low levels, making the protection of hens a top priority.

Then along came the Conservation Reserve Program in the mid-1980s, which paid farmers to retire erodible cropland from farming and to instead plant it with grass. This led to a boom in duck production across the U.S. portion of the prairie pothole region. In Prairie Canada, habitat loss continued, to the extent that even though Canada’s duck producing region is much larger, more ducks were being produced in the U.S.

You might think the loss of so much Canadian habitat would have caused wildlife managers to proceed with caution, to protect the remaining ducks and their habitat, and to emphasize the importance of habitat conservation. Instead, wildlife managers embarked on a path of liberalizing duck hunting regulations. Duck seasons were extended, regulations relaxed and bag limits were raised. More importantly, habitat conservation and respect for the waterfowl resource, once the cornerstone of waterfowl management, took a back seat to the recreational aspects of hunting. Suddenly it seemed waterfowl management was only about killing lots of ducks.

Old duck hunters, who remembered not only a past when duck migrations darkened the skies, but also the grim decades of drought and intensive farming that decimated duck numbers, were concerned the new generation of waterfowl managers had forgotten the lessons their predecessors had learned. In Minnesota, some of the most prominent voices in conservation formed a group called the Concerned Duck Hunters Panel in hopes of convincing the new managers to dial back their enthusiasm for killing ducks. While they were able to receive an audience with the nation’s top waterfowl managers, the Concerned Duck Hunters’ message fell on deaf ears.

That was 10 years ago. Since then, the duck-killing party has continued, reaching a crescendo this year when waterfowl managers announced a new, early teal hunt for duck-producing states like Minnesota. Because past experience with an early teal hunt in the 1960s found that many hunters shot at all ducks, because they couldn’t identify teal, today’s managers suggested that hunters be allowed “mistake” ducks in the bag. Conservation had left the room.

But some of the old duck hunters are still out there. They haven’t forgotten past lessons, including the fact that duck populations crash in the face of intensive farming. They know that hard times for ducks will return in the very near future. One of the original members of the Concerned Duck Hunter’s Panel, Dave Zentner, is willing to take another run at trying to talk some sense into today’s duck managers. He’s reconvening the panel and hopes to start a new conversation about old-fashioned conservation and respect for the waterfowl resource.

Unfortunately, I worry that Zentner will run up against the same good ol’ boys club of waterfowl managers that rebuffed the Panel’s efforts the last time around. And I’ve long ceased to believe that today’s waterfowl managers can be counted on to do the right thing for the long-term health of North America’s waterfowl population. My only hope is that Zentner’s tireless efforts on behalf of conservation and wildlife will prove me wrong.

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