Outlook still mixed with several species' numbers down

PRATT -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has recently released the results of its May 2005 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, and the outlook is mixed. While the Prairie Pothole Region of the northcentral U.S. and southcentral Canada was dry earlier in the spring, wetland conditions and duck populations on the prairies have shifted dramatically over what they have been in recent years.

Prairie Canada has 56 percent more ponds than were counted in 2004, and 17 percent more than the long-term average. Although total May breeding duck numbers, approximately 31.7 million birds, were relatively unchanged from last year, breeding ducks have responded to the improved habitat conditions on the Canadian prairies. Ducks settling in prairie Canada increased by 31 percent from last year but decreased in the U.S. prairies, which have been drier, by 15 percent.

Hunters hoping for a good crop of mallards may be disappointed this fall. Counts for these early-nesting ducks in the Dakotas were lower in early May because potholes in that region were dry then. In the May survey, breeding mallards were down 9 percent from last year, and mallard numbers are what the USFWS uses to determine seasons. The USFWS is expected to announce season frameworks in late July.

However, heavy and continuing rains from late spring until the present have completely changed things. Since the survey's completion in May, rainfall has been abundant and extensive across all prairie-breeding areas in both countries. This could create an unusual situation for duck hunters this fall, according to Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks (KDWP) waterfowl researcher Marvin Kraft.

"What could happen is a more restricted season, but we could have outstanding hunting if late nesting results in great production," Kraft says. Kraft is quick to point out that no one knows right now what the production will be, but it could be good. In fact, abundant water should ensure high brood survival for hens that successfully hatch nests. Wet conditions are also encouraging a strong re-nesting effort as hens that lost early nests will re-nest well into the summer. The extremely wet conditions also are recharging groundwater supplies, which should help sustain many wetlands into next spring.

While mallard numbers are down, other species have increased significantly. The following chart compares last year's May duck numbers in the Prairie Pothole Region with this year.


While the figures on pintails are encouraging, biologists are particularly concerned about scaup. The majority of them nest in the Western Boreal Forest where habitat changes may be affecting this species. Federal and private organizations are working on habitat projects in these areas that hopefully will bring this duck back, but it could take several years.

The Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat surveys are conducted by the USFWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service throughout May and June on the main waterfowl breeding habitats in the mid-continent area. This is the 50th consecutive year that the survey has been conducted.