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Measuring Conservation Success

How do current waterfowl populations and habitat levels stack up against the goals of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan?
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  • photo by Robin Poole
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By Mark Petrie, Ph.D., and Michael Anderson, Ph.D.

In the spring of 1988, the pilot-biologists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service once again climbed aboard their aircraft. They were tasked, as they had been for 34 years, with estimating North America’s duck population. It is hard to imagine that they were optimistic. Even from the ground, they could see that much of the prairie remained locked in a nine-year drought.

A thousand miles to the south, men and women resigned themselves to the news. They also counted ducks, though usually in small neat piles carefully placed on the floor of their blinds. In fact, news coming out of the prairies had been bad for most of the 1980s. The 1970s gave us pet rocks, disco, and the Pacer, but it also provided folks with abundant duck populations and hunting opportunities that during the 1980s seemed faintly biblical.

There had been drought before, and there would be drought again. But by the mid-1980s, things felt different. There was a growing sense that the habitats needed by waterfowl were rapidly disappearing. Somewhere, somebody had calculated that waterfowl habitat was being destroyed at the rate of one acre per minute. Duck populations on the Canadian and U.S. prairies bottomed out in 1985 with the second-lowest count on record.

Managing waterfowl harvest had always been an international affair, but conserving waterfowl habitat often involved public agencies and private groups working in important but uncoordinated ways to meet the needs of North America’s waterfowl. All that changed on May 14, 1986, when the United States and Canada signed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP). Mexico would later sign in 1994.

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