By Dale D. Humburg
During Ducks Unlimited's first 75 years, waterfowl populations closely tracked the abundance of wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region, soaring during wet years and plummeting during times of drought. Participation in waterfowl hunting has also fluctuated widely throughout DU's history in response to the abundance of ducks and opportunities to hunt them.
Looking ahead, DU begins its next 75 years with more than 750,000 members in the United States and Canada, nearly 13 million acres conserved across North America, and duck breeding populations at the highest levels in more than 50 years. Decades from now, the health of waterfowl populations and their habitats will likely depend on how many DU members and other waterfowl conservation supporters we can recruit and retain. As wetlands and other wildlife habitats come under increasing threat, sustaining a broad base of conservation support will be essential to ensuring a bright future for waterfowl.
Ducks in the Balance
In 2012, a record 48.6 million breeding ducks were tallied in traditionally surveyed areas of North America. While this was certainly good reason for celebration, veteran waterfowlers know that high duck populations can be closely followed by dramatic declines. During the past three decades alone, breeding duck numbers have ranged from a low of just over 25 million birds in 1990 to this year's record total. Such a high degree of variability isn't unusual or unexpected; waterfowl populations have always experienced booms and busts, and they will continue to do so during DU's next 75 years.
Among the more than 40 species of waterfowl in North America, some are increasing while others are declining or remain at depressed levels. For example, populations of gadwalls, northern shovelers, green-winged teal, and lesser snow geese have gradually increased over the long term. Still others, notably northern pintails, scaup, American black ducks, and several sea ducks, have suffered long-term declines. With some species on the increase, others in decline, and a lot of variation from year to year, waterfowl management will remain a complex endeavor.
For many waterfowl species, the primary influences on population growth occur during the breeding season. Nesting success and hen and brood survival are particularly important. That's why the Prairie Pothole Region and western boreal forest, North America's most important waterfowl breeding areas, are DU's highest-priority conservation regions.
But ducks and geese spend six to eight months in migration and on their wintering grounds, and breeding waterfowl are most successful when they return north in good condition. DU's continental approach to waterfowl conservation, which includes work in every state and Canadian province, ensures that waterfowl can find the habitat they need on their way south to wintering areas and again during their return trip to the breeding grounds.
What about hunting? More than 20 million ducks and geese were harvested in the United States and Canada during 2011−2012 waterfowl seasons. Waterfowl harvests closely track duck and goose populations and hunting regulations. Federal, state, and provincial conservation agencies have the mandated responsibility to set seasons, bag limits, and other harvest regulations. In the future, DU will continue to support these agencies' harvest management efforts, but our focus will remain on habitat conservation. The numbers of ducks and geese surveyed each year, as well as trends in waterfowl harvest and hunter numbers, will continue to serve as barometers of DU's conservation success.
Habitat in the Balance
Simply stated, habitat gains must outpace or at least keep pace with habitat losses for waterfowl populations to hold their own. Many conservation challenges now facing DU have been decades in the making. For example, the United States has already lost more than 50 percent of its historical wetlands and 97 percent of its native prairie. In addition, Louisiana's coastal wetlands are disappearing at a rate of 17 square miles each year. In the future, increasing rates of wetland and grassland conversion to agriculture, expanding urban populations, and other causes are likely to put even more pressure on the habitats that support waterfowl and other wildlife.
Conserving North America's diverse waterfowl habitats cannot be achieved using a one-size-fits-all approach. A combination of habitat protection via acquisition and easements, restoration of habitat on landscapes that have already been altered, and intensive habitat management will be required to meet the needs of waterfowl across this continent. DU's conservation toolbox includes all of these approaches to ensure success on diverse landscapes. In places like the Prairie Pothole Region, where large tracts of waterfowl habitat remain intact but are now seriously threatened, DU works with many partners to permanently protect wetlands and grasslands through direct acquisition or conservation easements. In regions like the Central Valley of California, the Midwest, and Gulf Coast, where extensive habitat loss and degradation have already occurred, DU focuses on restoring and intensively managing wetlands and associated habitats. While restored wetlands are never as productive as the original habitats, managers can mimic the natural hydrology (the timing, depth, and frequency of flooding), partially restore upland cover and diversity, and improve water quality in the surrounding watershed.
But DU will not fulfill its mission through direct conservation programs alone. Policies that restore and protect wetlands are vital to ensuring a secure habitat base for waterfowl and other wildlife. The Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp, commonly referred to as the federal duck stamp, has raised more than $750 million to secure more than 5 million acres in the National Wildlife Refuge System. In addition, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act has provided more than $1.1 billion in grants, positively impacting more than 26 million acres of wetlands and associated habitat in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. And Farm Bill conservation programs, especially the Conservation Reserve Program and Wetlands Reserve Program, have helped farmers and ranchers put millions of acres of important waterfowl habitat back on the landscape. DU members have been both supporters and beneficiaries of these programs, and their continued advocacy for these programs and other sources of conservation funding is more important now than ever.
Fortunately, DU is not alone in its conservation mission. We have always relied on the strength of diverse partnerships with government, other nonprofit organizations, and dedicated individuals. DU will also continue to work with farmers, ranchers, and agribusiness to promote wildlife-friendly agricultural practices on working lands. During the next 75 years, we will strive to strengthen and build on these partnerships to achieve even greater things for wetlands and waterfowl.
A Continental Waterfowl Management Enterprise The North American Waterfowl Management Plan, implemented in 1986, establishes a continental framework for waterfowl conservation. A significant revision, in which DU was heavily involved, was signed in May 2012. Strong emphasis on integrating strategies for waterfowl populations, habitat, and supporters ensures balanced efforts among all the partners involved in waterfowl conservation. DU has become an increasingly prominent part of the continental waterfowl conservation effort. That will not change in decades to come.
Growing Support for Waterfowl Conservation
Ensuring future generations of waterfowl conservation supporters is among the greatest challenges facing DU during its next 75 years. DU was founded by a small group of avid waterfowlers, and hunters have been and continue to be the backbone of the organization's support. Unfortunately, waterfowl hunter numbers have declined gradually over the past 40 years, from 2 million in the early 1970s to 1.15 million in 2011.
Despite nearly two decades of liberal harvest regulations, generally favorable habitat conditions, and record waterfowl populations in some years, we have been unable to maintain traditional numbers of waterfowlers. Well-documented reasons for the growing disconnect between people and the outdoors include a shift from a rural to an urban lifestyle, increasing competition for free time, lack of access, and an aging U.S. population. Regardless of the causes, DU members have great potential to influence participation in waterfowl hunting and wetlands conservation.
We should start by focusing on our existing strength. Waterfowlers who always purchase a duck stamp and are long-term DU members are the bedrock of the waterfowl conservation community.
For many of us, introducing today's youth to the wonders of waterfowling is a compelling cause. As a grandparent, I am particularly aware of my responsibility to pass on waterfowling traditions to my grandchildren. They are among the new recruits who will perpetuate DU and waterfowl conservation in decades to come. It's up to us to mentor and encourage young waterfowlers to join our ranks.
But potential new waterfowl conservationists are not limited to young people or even to waterfowlers. Although the majority of those who support waterfowl conservation today are hunters who began hunting at an early age and come from a hunting family, this may not be the case in the future. For example, between 10 and 20 percent of today's DU members do not hunt. These individuals, who support waterfowl and wetlands conservation but are not hunters, represent a large potential pool of future conservation supporters. According to a 2012 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 13.3 million people travel away from home to observe waterfowl, including 4.2 million who travel out of state to do so. If just 10 percent of waterfowl viewers who do not currently purchase ducks stamps did so in the future, an additional $20 million would be contributed to the National Wildlife Refuge System each year.
Support from an even broader constituency could come as a result of the many societal benefits wetlands provide, including clean water, flood abatement, and groundwater recharge. For example, policies focused on water availability in California, flood mitigation in the Midwest, water quality in Chesapeake Bay, or coastal wetland loss in Louisiana could provide significant new support for wetlands conservation, benefiting all who appreciate waterfowl and their habitats.
The largest near-term gains in conservation support could be achieved by simply retaining more DU members from year to year and reengaging past DU supporters who are not currently active in the organization. In any given year, only about half of DU members renew their membership. In total, more than 3 million men and women have been DU members for at least one year during the past two decades. It's up to us to ask all past DU supporters to return to the fold.
In the end, waterfowl populations, habitat, and conservation supporters all depend on each other. We know that large numbers of conservation supporters are required to support waterfowl habitat conservation, which in turn ensures future populations of ducks and geese. And habitat for waterfowl also means habitat that provides enjoyment for everyone who values these magnificent birds. As we begin DU's next 75 years, we must do what is needed today to ensure sustainable numbers of conservation supporters, abundant wetlands and other wildlife habitats, and healthy waterfowl populations for generations to come.
Dale D. Humburg is chief scientist at DU national headquarters in Memphis.
Planning for the Future Sound strategic planning is especially important in waterfowl conservation because the birds and their habitats are almost always in a state of flux. At regional scales, substantial changes in waterfowl distribution can occur from year to year. Weather and habitat conditions are highly dynamic, often accounting for annual differences in waterfowl movements and regional hunting opportunities.
Participation in waterfowl hunting and support for wetlands and waterfowl conservation are also highly variable. People who are engaged in these activities today may not be tomorrow. Consequently, to ensure a sustainable future, DU and its partners must pursue dynamic strategies to keep pace with a rapidly changing world.