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Banding Together for Waterfowl

A New Plan for Waterfowl

The recently revised North American Waterfowl Management Plan will help ensure a bright future for ducks and their habitats
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By Jim Ringelman, Ph.D.

It was 1985, and the continental duck population had fallen to its lowest level in two decades. Of even greater concern was a change in the historical relationship between wetlands and breeding ducks. Winter snowfall and spring rainfall yielded a 93 percent increase in May ponds from 1980 to 1985, but duck numbers decreased by 31 percent during the same period. Up until then, pond and duck numbers had moved more or less in lockstep. It appeared that habitat loss had taken its toll, and biologists had new evidence to back the claim.

Research conducted during the 1970s painted a bleak picture for ducks, particularly those breeding on the prairies. An especially worrisome finding came from a study that used miniature radio transmitters—attached to ducks like small backpacks—to track individual nesting hens. The researchers concluded that mallards in North Dakota had only 8 percent nesting success, well below the level required to sustain the population. The situation on the wintering grounds was not much better. Gulf Coast wetlands, bottomland hardwoods, and other vital habitats were also being lost, affecting winter survival and perhaps even breeding success the following spring. It seemed that the ducks were in real trouble.

The duck depression of the early 1980s energized the waterfowl management community in a way not seen since the Dust Bowl days. Something had to be done to address the loss of habitat and restore waterfowl populations. It would take a new way of doing business at a scale never before contemplated by waterfowl biologists, sportsmen, or the public. This was the genesis of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), a totally new model for waterfowl conservation. The year the NAWMP was signed, in 1986, the estimated cost for its full implementation was $1.5 billion, an audacious price tag at that time.

Founded on the desire to rebuild waterfowl populations to 1970s levels, the NAWMP was designed as an international partnership, in which government agencies, nonprofit organizations, private landowners, and others would work together in regional joint ventures. The authors assumed that many partners working together under a joint-venture framework would leverage more resources, and put more habitat on the ground, than those same partners could accomplish working alone. And they were right.

The conservation accomplishments of the past 26 years speak volumes about the effectiveness of the joint-venture model. Since 1986, NAWMP partners have invested more than $4 billion in the protection and restoration of 15.7 million acres of wetlands and associated habitats in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Of equal importance, they have helped shape land use, agricultural programs, and other public policies that are vital to sustaining continental waterfowl populations. These accomplishments were guided by scientific investigations and sophisticated planning tools, which ensured targeted and effective program delivery.

In 2012, the breeding duck index in the traditionally surveyed area of North America was the highest recorded in 57 years. We can credit successive wet years on the prairie breeding grounds for much of this population boom, but should also acknowledge the accomplishments of the NAWMP. Without the wetland restoration and protection efforts implemented by DU and its NAWMP partners, much of the moisture would have flowed into ditches instead of wetland basins, and many more hens would have been forced to nest in small, fragmented patches of habitat. In the end, it's impossible to separate the effects of nature and NAWMP programs on waterfowl populations. And we shouldn't try. Habitat conservation programs complement natural processes, and their effects are intertwined.

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