Waterfowl Forecast 2005

The outlook for duck hunters across the Midwest this fall is promising. While the total springtime mallard breeding populations had dropped 9 percent from last year's numbers and 10 percent below long-term averages, there were increased numbers of mallards in the Canadian prairies. Additionally, biologists expected better production in this region due to improved habitat conditions.

"From what I'm seeing it looks like parts of Canada, especially southern Saskatchewan, southern Alberta and southern Manitoba, were wetter than they were a year ago," says Nebraska Game and Parks Commission waterfowl biologist Mark Vrtiska. "Nebraska gets a lot of its mallards from these regions, so things are looking good."

Despite the overall numbers, mallard breeding populations were up a combined 9 percent from last year in prairie Canada. Pond counts were up 56 percent from the previous spring. Conditions remained dry through early May, but heavy rains recharged both the U.S. and Canadian prairies later in the month and into June. The rain probably came too late to prevent overflights where very dry conditions persisted, such as in South Dakota, but late-nesting species and renesting efforts should benefit.

The improved habitat conditions and strong mallard counts in prairie Canada should bolster flights in both the Central and Mississippi flyways.

Additionally, Mississippi Flyway populations are supplemented with ducks born and bred in southern Ontario and the Great Lakes region. By the completion of the breeding ducks survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was reporting good habitat conditions in southern Ontario.

Great Lakes breeding mallard populations (in Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota) are down from last year but are within 4 percent of their long-term average. However, hunters in these states, along with those in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, should still see plenty of mallards due to better habitat and production.

"I think production should be average to above-average in some areas," says Minnesota Department of Natural Resources waterfowl biologist Steve Cordts. "Conditions through July were good. We are expecting good hunting-season habitat."

Likewise, conditions in Wisconsin and Michigan improved. Michigan's wetland counts this spring were up from last year.

Season limits and bags will remain liberal, with a 74-day season in the Central Flyway. The Mississippi Flyway will have a 60-day season. Mallard numbers drive these regulations, and while the total mallard count was down slightly, the decrease was not dramatic enough to implement moderate or conservative harvest frameworks.

In addition to greenhead migration, both Midwestern flyways feature strong flights of gadwalls and green-winged teal. Gadwalls and greenwings are the second and third most harvested ducks in the Central Flyway. Along the Mississippi, gadwalls compete with wood ducks for the number two spot, while greenwings rank fourth.

This spring, gadwalls and greenwings were below 2004 breeding estimates, but both species are still considerably above their long-term averages, with greenwings up 16 percent and gadwalls up 30 percent. In prairie Canada gadwall numbers mirrored 2004 estimates, which are well above the long-term average for the region, while greenwing figures doubled.

According to Vrtiska, gadwalls are late nesters; therefore the late spring rains that recharged the Canadian prairies should bode especially well for gadwall production.

Unlike other waterfowl species, wood ducks are difficult to count from the air because they nest in forested wetlands. Nevertheless, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, along with state agencies, still monitors nesting boxes, examines harvest statistics and conducts roadside surveys to capture trends in wood duck habitat and production.

Wood duck populations have steadily rebounded since the 1960s, when their numbers were very low. Mississippi Flyway wood duck figures have increased almost 4 percent annually over the long term.

Of course, populations vary from state to state. Missouri Department of Conservation waterfowl biologist Doug Graber notes that the rate of increase has slowed or even peaked in Missouri, which lies in the heart of wood duck country. This could be the result of the loss of bottomland habitat or overharvesting spurred by the recent run of 60-day seasons, which have been in effect since 1997. While population growth rates are slowing in some areas, Graber notes that the wood duck is expanding its range outside of its traditional habitat into Iowa and the Dakotas.

Other species with promising outlooks for 2005 include bluewings and pintails. The pintails' 17 percent jump can mainly be attributed to fortuitous breeding habitat in prairie Canada, where the increase over 2004 was 56 percent. Total bluewing numbers were up 13 percent from 2004 with a 70 percent increase in prairie Canada.

The most alarming figure in the USFWS surveys this year was the severe decrease in scaup numbers. If you hunt scaup, you will likely see a noticeable difference in their flights this fall. They are near an all-time low.

Although goose populations look good, local Canada goose production was below average in the eastern Dakotas and some populations of white-fronted geese probably had poor nesting success in the arctic. --Brian Ruzzo

Cause for Concern?

The total duck estimate is close to 30 million. Mallards are down 9 percent and remain 10 percent below the long-term average of 7.5 million. Scaup populations are 11 percent lower than they were last year and 35 percent below their long-term average. Pintails are up 17 percent over last year's numbers but are still far below their long-term average.

Breeding Grounds

Once again, Alaska and Canada's maritime provinces proved to be in good to excellent shape. In the Dakotas and parts of the Canadian prairies, though, ducks returned to find dry lakes and potholes. A wet late spring and summer has helped. It's easy to see why mallard numbers suffered this year; they breed mostly in the central part of the U.S. and Canada, where habitat was fair to poor overall.

FIVE-YEAR AVERAGES ANNUAL TOTALS SINCE 2000 TOTAL DUCKS* MALLARD* SCAUP* NORTHERN PINTAIL* * In thousands NESTING CONDITIONS EXCELLENT GOOD FAIR POOR