Points North: duck boom is temporary - conservation threats are not

Ducks (Chuck Olsen/Flickr)
Ducks (Chuck Olsen/Flickr)

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North America currently has more ducks than at any time since 1955. So says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which counts 48.6 million ducks of various species in the newly released 2012 “Trends in Duck Breeding Populations.” The annual report summarizes spring survey information about ducks and wetlands collected by wildlife biologists from more than two million square miles of waterfowl habitat across the U.S. and Canada.

The present abundance of ducks is a temporary uptick due to soaking wet conditions across the northern nesting grounds in 2011. Duck populations rise and fall in response to wet and dry precipitation cycles on the prairies. In the simplest terms, if you want more ducks, just add water.

But nothing is ever that simple.

News of a record duck population won’t mean much to hunters in Minnesota and many points elsewhere. The era when high duck numbers meant good hunting is long past. These days, the autumn migration is often delayed by weeks of mild weather. When the ducks do fly, they pause briefly at an ever-shrinking list of marshes and waterways where they find food and refuge from human disturbance. In Minnesota, once the top duck hunting state in the nation, that’s become a pretty short list.

Ironically, the news of record duck numbers comes at a time when land and water conservation efforts are on the ropes. The present crop of politicians is at best indifferent and too often hostile to basic fish and wildlife conservation programs. Whenever they can, anti-conservation politicians hide behind political cover. Budgets are slashed in the name of deficit reduction. Long-standing regulations intended to protect land, water and wildlife are attacked as “job killers.”

It’s easy to blame Republicans for this assault on conservation. Heck, even my own congressman, Chip Cravaack, whose district includes Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters, as well as the upper reaches of the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers, issues press releases crowing about his efforts to dismantle clean water rules. But the problem is, the blame goes two ways. Few Democrats provide a counterbalance to Republicans’ anti-conservation rhetoric. After all, politicians from both parties pocket checks from the same special interests.

If the future of conservation appears bleak in Washington, it looks even worse in duck country. Not long ago I talked with a photographer friend who’d just returned from a photo expedition to the prairie pothole region of North Dakota, possibly the best duck nesting grounds remaining in North America. There he watched wildlife habitat disappear as farmers, in a mad, taxpayer-subsidized rush to take advantage of high commodity prices, plowed up grasslands to grow more corn and soybeans.

“Some days, I just felt like going back to the hotel for a good stiff drink, then calling it quits and heading for home,” my friend said.

Most of the grassland was withdrawn from the Conservation Reserve Program, where the federal government pays landowners not to farm erodible or unproductive land. Now, apparently, the government provides better taxpayer-funded incentives to plow and plant the poor ground. This situation is almost certain to be exacerbated by the new federal Farm Bill, which replaces current subsidies with a taxpayer-funded crop insurance program and removes disincentives intended to prevent wetland drainage by farmers who are receiving federal farm funding.

A cynic might say it’s as if the farm lobby wrote the Farm Bill. A cynic might be right.

Current habitat losses are especially distressing when you consider how much waterfowl habitat is already gone. The great salt marshes of the Eastern Seaboard were lost to industrialization and development. The delta marshes of the Gulf Coast are greatly diminished due to erosion and energy development. Across the Corn Belt, nearly all wetlands were drained and the original prairie eliminated. Prairie Canada, once the continent’s great duck factory, has been drained and plowed, too.

So much North American waterfowl habitat has disappeared that it is hard to believe we currently have more ducks than ever. Old-time hunters talk about seeing ducks in unimaginable abundance in places where few, if any, ducks are seen today. Duck hunting was once a mainstream activity for American males. Everyone from celebrities and community leaders to firemen and janitors spent time in the duck blind. By contrast, duck hunting today is a niche activity, pursued primarily by hunters with the good fortune to live near the remaining hunting areas or with the financial wherewithal to gain access to private clubs and commercial operations.

Enough duck hunters exist to support a sizable industry based on supplying them with guns, decoys, dogs, guides and private hunting grounds. But the future of the duck hunting business may be less rosy than the present. The current duck abundance will only last as long as the wet conditions on the nesting grounds. When the drought returns, duck numbers will begin an inevitable decline. If federal farm policies continue encouraging habitat destruction, duck numbers are unlikely to recover to present levels.

Does this mean the end of duck hunting as we know it? Maybe not, but most of the older hunters who I know would say duck hunting as they knew it is already gone. More likely we are at the beginning of a long decline in duck numbers. Twenty years from now, today’s hunters may look back wistfully at 2012 and say, “Remember when?”

For nearly a century, ducks have been the focus of international conservation efforts. Along the way, conservationists have accomplished much, notably the creation of public wildlife areas, the rise of conservation nonprofits such as Ducks Unlimited and raising public awareness of the importance of wetland protection. Those accomplishments didn’t come easy. Even in the best of times, conservationists are pushing a rock uphill in a market-driven world that places little value on Nature. Today, we’re pushing a bigger rock up a steeper hill. Let’s hope it doesn’t roll right over us.

Airdate: July 13 2012

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