Are you going duck hunting this weekend? The Sept. 27 opening date, a week earlier than the traditional first Saturday in October, is intended to give hunters more opportunities to kill ducks. Early migrants, such as blue-winged teal and wood ducks, are more likely to be available to hunters, because they head south when cold winds begin to blow.
To make it easier to kill birds, the DNR relaxed bag limit restrictions, increasing the mallard hen bag from one to two and the wood duck limit from two to three. The total daily bag limit is six ducks, the most allowed under the federal waterfowl harvest guidelines.
DNR Wildlife officials say making it easier to kill ducks isn't a biological issue, because the state now has about half as many duck hunters as it did 30 years ago. However, back then Minnesota had more places to hunt ducks and many more ducks. As an example, 30 years ago, the DNR conducted an annual count of opening day hunters at my favorite Cook County swamp. While the hunting at this northwoods pothole didn't compare with the action at a western prairie slough, it was good enough to draw hunters year after year. These days, perhaps two or three hunting parties start the season on the swamp and consider themselves lucky to come home with a bird or two. And the hunting isn’t much better at many once-popular marshes across the state.
It should be noted that many years ago, before this writer was old enough to go duck hunting, Minnesota had what was known as an early teal season, which opened in September and was intended to give hunters an opportunity to shoot only blue-winged teal. Alas, they shot other ducks, too, leading to the discontinuation of the early hunt.
The rules today's wildlife officials are relaxing to give hunters a better crack at the ducks were pioneered by an earlier generation of waterfowl biologists. Back then, Minnesota supported a large breeding duck population and wildlife managers tried to protect those precious local birds. For years, shooting hours on the opener were from noon to 4 p.m. For the remainder of the season, once ducks knew hunting season was open, shooting hours began one half hour before sunrise, when ducks are most active. Closing time remained 4 p.m. to protect hen mallards, which are especially vulnerable to late afternoon shooting. The 4 p.m. closure remains in place for the first nine days of the season.
For decades, learning to identify ducks in flight to avoid shooting hens has been a conservation cornerstone of duck hunting. The former one hen mallard limit was intended to allow hunters a "mistake" bird. While it is just one duck, the 2011 shift to two hen mallards in the bag is a symbolic step away from “don’t shoot hens” conservation ethic. Some say the same about the decision to raise the wood duck bag limit from two to three, because not enough is known about how the hunting harvest affects the overall wood duck population.
Yesterday's waterfowl managers would also be uncomfortable with opening the hunting season in September. Neither young-of-the-year nor post-molt adults are fully feathered then, which means they are slow-flying and difficult to identify. For those reasons and because they believed protecting local ducks was important, the old-timers thought it was best to hold off on hunting until October. That said, Canadian hunting seasons open as early as Sept. 1, though there is much less hunting pressure there.
Does relaxing duck hunting regulations mean the Minnesota DNR has suddenly given up on ducks? No. In fact, many familiar with the agency would say Wildlife Division is strongly biased toward ducks and may even devote too much of its energy to waterfowl management. A cynic might say the continuing decline in duck abundance and interest in duck hunting threatens the continued existence of the DNR’s waterfowl management bureaucracy. In that context, relaxing the rules to make it easier to kill ducks could be partly construed a matter of bureaucratic self-preservation.
Far more likely, the DNR's decisions are motivated by a sincere desire to provide better hunting and a sincere belief that doing so won't hurt duck populations. After all, DNR commissioner Tom Landwehr is an avid duck hunter and once served as the agency’s wetlands program coordinator and worked for Ducks Unlimited as well. Still, it is troubling to see the agency move away from long-standing hunting rules. Present duck populations are healthy, but the habitat upon which they depend is increasingly threatened by development. Political support for wildlife and hunting is on the wane.
Barely a century old, the conservation of wildlife is still a new and radical concept in America. As such, it retains a surprisingly fragile hold on our collective consciousness and politics. While the relaxing of a few duck hunting rules in no way means we’ve reached the conservation’s end times, it is another step down a path of putting the convenience of the hunter ahead of the conservation of the hunted. If we aren’t careful, wildlife conservation may lose its way.
This is Shawn Perich with Points North.