Habitat for Hunters

DU's habitat projects not only produce ducks but also provide important public-hunting opportunities

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Photo © Ryan Savage

By Scott Yaich, Ph.D.

Imagine asking a group of young Ducks Unlimited Greenwings the seemingly simple question, "What's the most important ingredient in a duck hunt?" A chorus of answers would ring out, the most common probably being "DUCKS!" This would provide a "teaching moment" to explain that, yes, indeed, there would be no duck hunting if North America's breeding grounds didn't generate a steady supply of ducks and other waterfowl. The youngsters would come to understand the reason why DU's mission has always focused on conserving waterfowl habitat.

Some clever Greenwing in the group might say, with a wry smile, the most important ingredient to a duck hunt is a "duck hunter." By definition, of course, he'd be right. But, you could press him further by pointing out that there's a basic ingredient beyond ducks, decoys, guns, shells, dogs, and all the usual duck hunting paraphernalia. "What is that fundamental ingredient?" you challenge. If our Greenwing is really bright, he might think a minute before his face brightens with enlightenment as he shouts, "A place to hunt!"

In many ways, he would be right. Everything else is secondary if you don't have a place to go hunting. Thirteen million people 16 and older hunted in the United States in 2001. Most (57 percent) hunted exclusively on private land, but 14 percent hunted only on public land while another 25 percent hunted on both. Thus, public land provided more than 5 million hunters a place to hunt, and almost 2 million depended on it.

The future of hunting depends, in other critical ways, on having places to hunt. There were a million fewer adult hunters in 2001 than in 1991. The decline among younger hunters is of even greater concern in the long run. Hunters from age 12 through 17 decreased from 2.7 million to 2 million between 1990 and 2000, while the number of hunters from age 6 through 11 fell by 20 percent. A 2004 report revealed that 22 percent of hunters (the second-highest percentage) indicated that access to public land is one of the most important issues facing hunting today. Access to hunting opportunity was the highest-ranked cause of dissatisfaction among hunters. Providing hunting opportunity, particularly on public lands, is clearly a significant concern to hunters and of great importance to the future of hunting.

Although DU's primary mission is to conserve North America's waterfowl habitats, the second part of the mission statement says, "These habitats also benefit other wildlife and people." Fortunately, in addition to producing ducks, many DU habitat projects also provide places to hunt ducks and other game. DU currently owns about 20,000 acres in the United States, mostly in South Dakota and other Great Plains states. Almost all the land DU owns is open to the public for walk-in hunting by permission through the Great Plains Regional Office.

DU's sister organization, Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC), owns approximately 300,000 acres of land. These tracts are located across Canada, but most are on the prairies of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. The vast majority of this acreage is open to walk-in hunting by the public, including the many U.S. hunters who travel to Canada to pursue waterfowl annually. Information about these projects may be obtained by contacting the DUC office located nearest the area you plan to hunt. Most of this land is managed as nesting cover, but there are many potholes scattered through the properties that can provide good hunting for puddle ducks like mallards and gadwalls. DUC has also conserved millions of acres of larger wetlands, which provide more opportunity to hunt over water. These areas provide hunting for species like scaup and canvasbacks that tend to use large bodies of open water. DU does not own most of these wetland projects, but hunting is typically allowed on request. Again, contact the local DUC office for assistance.

For the majority of hunters who spend their time closer to home, DU has completed conservation projects with state and federal wildlife agencies in all 50 states. In many cases we work in partnership with the agencies to develop projects that are designed to provide public-hunting opportunity, a principal component of the missions of those agencies. Of the nearly 1.3 million acres of conservation projects on state and federal lands in which DU has been involved, most are open to public hunting.

A good example of such a project is the Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek Bottoms Wildlife Management Area in east Arkansas. A partnership between DU, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and others brought this 4,063-acre wetland area into public ownership in 2000. The dual objectives of the project were to conserve and restore an important part of this wetland system, one of the most important wintering areas for waterfowl in the Mississippi Flyway, and to provide public hunting opportunity. This new WMA enabled AGFC to experiment with ways to improve the quality of public waterfowl hunting, something in which many public-lands hunters in Arkansas expressed interest. Hunting on this new WMA has been good so far, and hunters have been pleased with the overall quality of the hunting experience.

Ducks Unlimited works to achieve its mission primarily through habitat conservation, but always keeps foremost in mind the fundamental "people" element of the mission. Providing hunting opportunity is an important part of benefiting the people who support DU and its mission.

We can all share a valuable perspective by thinking about our Greenwing members. We must not think only of having ducks and places to hunt today, but we must take actions to ensure that these young waterfowlers will always have ducks and places to hunt.

Dr. Scott Yaich is director of conservation programs at DU national headquarters in Memphis.