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From the Breeding Grounds: It's Dry...Real Dry...Bad Dry

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BISMARCK, N.D. -- What a difference a year makes.

Last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey painted a rosy picture -- Canada had the fourth-highest pond count in recorded history and five duck species were in record or near-record territory.

The 2008 breeding population survey, released this week by the Service, shows a 39 percent decline in Canadian ponds and double-digit percentage drops for 5 of the 10 most abundant species in the traditional survey area.
"Overall, the duck numbers aren't as bad as they might have been, but don't look for much production this year," says Dr. Frank Rohwer of Louisiana State University, Delta Waterfowl's scientific director. "Those areas across the breeding grounds that are wet are not the productive areas, and the most productive areas are dry...real dry...bad dry."
The combined May pond count for the United States and Canada was 4.4 million, a drop of 37 percent from a year ago and 10 percent below the long-term average. The mallard population was surprisingly strong, down just 7 percent to 7.7 million breeding birds. Total ducks dropped 9 percent from 41.1 million to 37.3 million.

Among the biggest surprises of the survey was the canvasback, which fell 44 percent from last year's record 865,000 to just 489,000 this year.

Northern shoveler dropped 23 percent from last year's record high of 4.6 million to just 3.5 million, northern pintail fell 22 percent from 3.3 million to 2.6 million, gadwall slipped 19 percent from 3.4 million to 2.7 million and American wigeon numbers slid 11 percent from 2.8 million to 2.5 million.

On the positive side of the ledger, scaup numbers jumped 8 percent from 3.5 million to 3.7 million, making it the third most-abundant species; redheads rose 5 percent from last year's record high of 1 million to 1.1 million, and green-winged teal edged up 3 percent to 2.9 million, the second-highest population ever for the No. 2 bird in harvest.

Dry conditions across the prairie breeding grounds took a toll on mallard numbers. The eastern Dakota mallard population was down 24 percent from last year, Montana and the western Dakotas slipped 36 percent and Saskatchewan was down 12 percent. Increases in mallard numbers were seen in the "bush" regions of the northern provinces, suggesting the birds over-flew the prairies.

"When the prairies are dry, a lot of mallards will over-fly the prairies and sit out the summer up north," says Delta President Rob Olson. "We don't get a lot of production from those birds."

Olson says mallard and pintail numbers in Alberta continue to be a concern for Delta scientists. "Alberta's pond count is still 15 percent above the long-term average, but the pintail population there is down 66 percent from its long-term average and mallards are 20 percent below their long-term average.

"When Alberta is the one bright spot in terms of spring habitat, we would have hoped for a better result there. We haven't seen a response for mallards or pintails in Alberta, despite good wetland conditions."

The story is different in the eastern Dakotas, where the mallard population is still 75 percent higher than its long-term average despite a 16-percent drop in wetlands long-term. "That's a function of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which put millions of acres of undisturbed grass nesting cover on the landscape," Olson says.

"The mallard breeding population across the duck factory is still above the long-term average because of CRP, but at the rate we're losing CRP, it's going to be difficult to maintain those levels."

In the eastern survey area, mallards were unchanged at 450,000, black ducks dropped 13 percent to 496,000, green-winged teal were up fractionally at 261,000, ring-necked ducks dropped 17 percent to 551,000, goldeneyes fell 7 percent at 424,000, mergansers dropped 4 percent to 412,000, wigeon lost 40 percent to 8,000, scaup rose 4 percent to 32,000, bufflehead climbed 93 percent to 30,000 and scoters lost 17 percent to 86,000.

The survey is conducted annually by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service.
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