Waterfowl data may lead to shorter TX duck season

spectr17

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June 28, 2002

Waterfowl data may lead to shorter duck season

By SHANNON TOMPKINS, Houston Chronicle

Texas waterfowl hunters will see a 16-day teal season this September.

That may be the most positive news they get concerning waterfowl seasons this year.

Preliminary data from just-completed surveys of duck nesting grounds on the northern prairies and parkland and arctic Canada indicate duck populations are down, habitat quality in much of Canada is poor and a late spring stands to reduce nesting success for important species such as mallards and pintails.

That almost certainly will result in a shorter duck season and more conservative daily bag limits during the 2002-03 hunting season.

But the estimated population of blue-winged teal, the focus of the special September teal-only hunting season, is high enough to warrant a 16-day season, the maximum season length.

Preliminary data gathered over the past few weeks during the annual duck breeding population survey of northern prairie nesting grounds peg the estimate of blue-winged teal numbers at 4.8 million birds.

That's just over the 4.7 million bluewing population estimate waterfowl managers have set as the trigger for the 16-day teal season, said Bob Bloom, acting director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Migratory Bird Management.

Under federal waterfowl management plans, if bluewing breeding population numbers drop below 4.7 million birds, the September season aimed at the early migrating bluewings reverts to a 9-day session.

While the breeding population estimates are unofficial, final numbers are certain to remain above the 4.7 million bluewing threshold. Those early numbers don't include bluewings counted along transects in some of the northern portions of the survey areas, said Steve Cordts, assistant waterfowl program manager for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"That preliminary estimate of 4.8 million bluewings is without the numbers from the surveys in the far north, and that's because those surveys were conducted later than normal this year," Cordts said. "When those numbers are added and final estimates are in, the bluewing numbers will be over 4.7 million."

Normally, the breeding population survey and the associated "pond count" (a survey of wetlands) are conducted in May and have been completed and compiled by mid-June.

The annual report typically is released before the end of June.

But a very late spring on much of the northern prairies, parkland and arctic areas delayed surveys, Bloom said.

Many nesting areas remained frozen two or three weeks later than normal, preventing birds from migrating to the regions and setting up housekeeping.

The unusually late spring in northern portions of the nesting grounds meant lots of birds stalled south of their usual nesting areas, waiting for thaw.

That traffic jam in the spring duck migration is being fingered as a reason state duck population surveys in the Dakotas and Minnesota showed unexpected high numbers.

North Dakota's state survey of duck numbers and wetland conditions was conducted May 13-16. It was the state's 55th annual survey, and it is separate from the federal survey upon which the national breeding population estimate is based.

That survey showed a 25 percent decrease from a year ago in available wetland habitat in the state.

But duck numbers were through the roof. The North Dakota survey showed a population index of 5.4 million ducks, the highest since the surveys began in 1948.

A lot of those ducks weren't breeders, though.

"It is clear from our data that the 2002 index is comprised of a large number of ducks that were not settled at the time of the survey," said Mike Johnson, head of waterfowl programs for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "Thus, large numbers of migrant ducks (ducks still en route to breeding ground farther north) are likely represented in the index."

Still, a large number of those ducks that normally might nest farther north could stay in the Dakotas.

Habitat conditions in North and South Dakota are just fair this year. But conditions to the north are very poor. Johnson said virtually all of Montana and prairie Canada are extremely dry this year.

Some of the ducks that stalled in the Dakotas could remain here to nest.

The late spring probably will not affect nesting success of bluewings and gadwall, two species which typically are late nesters.

But the late thaw and overall dry conditions in much of prairie Canada likely will impact early nesting species such as mallards and pintails, TPWD's Cordts said.

"When you have a late spring, mallards and pintails, which are early nesters and need open water as soon as they hit the nesting grounds, could suffer."

While the complete report on duck breeding population estimates and pond counts will not be final for at least a couple of weeks, preliminary numbers point to falling duck numbers and the aforementioned degrading of wetland habitat.

For example, the index of 4.8 million bluewings is a decline of almost one million birds from the 2001 breeding population index of 5.75 million teal and down from 7.43 million the year before.

Early numbers for mallards place the index at about 7 million birds, also down about one million from the 2001 index of 7.9 million mallards, and 3 million birds fewer than the 10.80 million mallards estimated in 1999.

In setting duck season length and daily bag limits, waterfowl managers now use a system termed Adaptive Harvest Management. AHM offers regulatory packages which would, according to computer models, keep duck harvesting within accepted bounds.

Which regulations package is used depends most heavily upon pond counts and the breeding population of mallards.

Under current AHM protocol, the 2002-03 regulations packages for duck season in the Central Flyway are a 74-day season with a 6 duck bag limit (liberal), a 60-day season with a 6-duck bag but restrictions on mallard hens (moderate), a 39-day season with a 3-duck bag (restrictive) and a 25-day season with a 3-duck bag limit (very restrictive).

This past season, the Central Flyway saw a liberal regulations package under AHM.

But with breeding population numbers and habitat conditions expected to show rather considerable declines from a year ago, waterfowl managers say that when data from this year's surveys are plugged into the current AHM model it could call for the restrictive rules package. That would mean almost halving season length and bag limits from this past season.

There is talk among waterfowl managers of adjusting the AHM model to restrict year-to-year changes in regulation packages to no more than one step.

If that suggestion is adopted by the Flyway Councils and approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's regulations committee, Texas waterfowlers would be looking at the moderate 60-day, 6-duck option for the coming season, no matter what the final breeding population, nesting success and pond counts say.

That decision, along with setting season frameworks and species-specific issues, such as potential changes in canvasback and pintail bag limits, will be hashed out at flyway council meetings in late July.

Final word on season length, dates and bag limits for the regular duck and goose seasons will be set by the USFWS regulations committee when the group meets in Washington, DC the first week of August.

Shannon Tompkins covers the outdoors for the Chronicle. His column appears on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.
 

Mike Riley

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Canadian ponds--1.4 million

US ponds--1.3 million

Total Ponds--2.7 million

The pond counts are made in southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, all of North Dakota, the eastern 3/4 of South Dakota and eastern 2/3 of Montana. They have been counted since 1961 in Canada and 1974 in US.

Based on last years AHM plan for pond counts and mallard 2.5 million ponds with 7 million mallards equals a moderate package and 2.5 millions ponds with 7.5 million mallards equals a liberal package.  The preliminary data was already showing over 7.0 million pairs last week.  Looks like we are on the fence between a moderate and liberal package for the upcoming season.
 

Cazador Suerte II

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How does the moderate v. liberal package translate into season length and bag limits???
 


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