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Lake life

Dr. Duck, part 3

Numbers of migratory waterfowl and hunter success are, and always will be, cyclical. There are good years and bad years. Larry Reynolds, Waterfowl Program Manager for Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, admits that right up front.

But sometimes those numbers also call for action, so that is where Louisiana is right now. Is the cycle bad enough to take drastic measures? Are we at the bottom of the cycle yet? What can we do to change that? Those are just three of about 600 questions duck hunters might ask.

I think we are seeing a “new generation” of ducks who are breaking with some traditional migrating patterns, who are spending more and more of their time in a growing number of “waterfowl sanctuaries” where life is easy and food is given away in abundance. In addition, the birds are less tolerant of warmer weather and are more aware of areas where life is easy and they won’t get shot at. I call them millenium ducks.

But let’s listen to what Dr. Duck has to say in our final of three parts of this duck week series:

Take ’em, Dr. Duck:

The main two factors in hunting success are weather and habitat,” he says. “We can’t control the first one and we haven’t controlled the second one as well as we could. We have lost a lot of our marsh areas and those areas are prime for teal hunting. Here’s an example of what’s going on.

We had a long teal season this year, but there was a downward trend. Teal numbers were down six percent from last year, but still 10% above the long term average (LTA). Bluewing teal have been trending downward for several years. Teal counts this year were the lowest on record since back decades. Hunter success was about 1.1 per hunter, which is about average and at White Lake it was 3.3 teal per hunter. White Lake is about as good as it gets and what most folks call “ritzy” teal hunting.

Losing habitat here is being compounded by things going on in other areas. Larry says there are three million more acres in agriculture today in North and South Dakota than there were in 2000. In the southeastern part of Missouri, there is 30 times as much flooded rice in fields today as there was in 2000. Rice planting in Louisiana during that same time is down 40%.

It’s left a situation where we have a lower number of birds, declining habitat, more expensive hunting patterns and unsatisfied hunters. It doesn’t paint a pretty picture. Duck hunting, however is cyclical. Things can get better. But Larry doesn’t think we’ve hit the bottom of the cycle yet.

“I wish I could say otherwise, but in all honesty, I can’t. The data indicates that birds are shifting north.”

Once again, from year to year, weather can play into that. other than that, some other help may be on the way?

“One thing that has just started getting some attention is studying the economic impact on changes in hunting participation,” he says. “We need to find out just what kind of impact declining hunting numbers are having and will have. That will get some people’s attention. But you can’t just say it, you have to have hard data. And if there is less hunting, there will be less conservation, too. That should get everyone’s attention, not just hunters. But again, we’ve got to develop some hard data. We can’t just go in with our opinions.”

In the meantime, Larry says controversy has arisen of some areas in the Midwest that have started planting corn, leaving it unharvested and then flooding the fields. That is attracting birds – especially mallards, by the thousands. Some blame the distribution of ducks to the west on that. But Larry says while it is a fact, the rumors of 40,000 acres of that type habitat are far over-exaggerated. It’s more like 560 acres last year. Planting, not harvesting and flooding cornfields is mega expensive. More than likely, if you ask a farmer how much it would cost to do that, he’ll give you a “you can’t even afford to ask that question, much less hear the answer” type look.

There are lots of YouTube videos promoting areas like Habitat Flats that make you think all the ducks in the country are there. But while there are many videos, most are shot at the same few places, Larry said. He doesn’t think it’s the concern it’s being made out to be.

Things we do know for sure are this.

In Louisiana, the number of migrating birds is down. Hunter satisfaction is down. And we haven’t reached the bottom of the cycle yet. But still, Louisiana is one of the top places in the world to hunt ducks. Don’t forget that. And a day in the blind is about more than seeing a zillion ducks, although we all want to kill a few. Duck hunters just have to change with the ducks and make sure we manage what we can control to the best of our ability.

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