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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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The goal of the plan was straightforward but bold: restore North American waterfowl populations to levels observed during the 1970s. Although the goal was continental, the plan’s success would depend on regional efforts to increase waterfowl habitat. To that end, joint ventures of public agencies and private organizations, including DU, were formed in six areas that supported large numbers of breeding, wintering, or migrating waterfowl. In time, that number would grow to 22, including three species-oriented joint ventures with a strong research focus. These joint ventures merged and accelerated public and private efforts to carry out the work envisioned by the plan. The joint ventures translated the plan’s population goals into regional habitat goals and set out to achieve them.

In 2006, NAWMP marked its 20th anniversary. Although the plan has been updated three times, its biological impact had never been thoroughly evaluated. Where are we in restoring waterfowl populations to 1970s levels? In 2005, 13 waterfowl biologists from the United States, Canada, and Mexico (including the authors of this article) were asked to lead an assessment of NAWMP accomplishments. All 22 joint ventures in the United States and Canada were engaged in reporting their progress in meeting waterfowl needs.

So how should we judge success? The original plan’s goals were clear: return waterfowl populations to 1970s levels. One option was to simply examine duck numbers since 1986. Between 1994 and 2003, seven of the 10 most common duck species in the traditional survey area were as abundant or more abundant than they had been between 1970 and 1979. Only population estimates for pintails, scaup, and wigeon remained below 1970s levels, although pintail and scaup declines were steep. On the surface, then, it appeared that much had been done to meet the NAWMP goal, but there is a problem with this overly simplistic comparison.

The duck boom of the mid- and late 1990s coincided with a series of extraordinarily wet years, especially in the U.S. prairies. Moreover, the 1985 Farm Bill had created the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which eventually added nearly 8 million acres of nesting cover on the U.S. prairies. Together, these changes boosted duck production, but they obscured other less favorable trends in waterfowl habitat. Where would we stand when it stopped raining or if CRP disappeared from the Farm Bill? Simply comparing duck numbers over time could not give a true picture of how effective the plan had been and what remained to be done.

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