Ducks Unlimited and Predators
Frequently Asked Questions
Killing predators on the nesting grounds to boost waterfowl production might seem like a logical way to ensure more ducks in the fall flight. But would it really be an effective use of the money hunters contribute to conservation? Would it really make a difference in the number of ducks most hunters see in front of their blind? These questions and many others are answered in the following Frequently Asked Questions about Ducks Unlimited and Predators.
Look for more information about how Ducks Unlimited is dealing with predators and securing healthy waterfowl populations in the November/December issue of Ducks Unlimited Magazine.
Q: Some people say that predator control is the solution to declining duck populations. Are ducks in serious trouble?
A: With a few important exceptions, waterfowl populations are doing extremely well. During the latter half of the 1990’s most duck and goose species were near record levels, and hunters in many areas experienced record-high harvests through the year 2000. Duck populations declined slightly in 2001 and 2002 due to dry conditions on the breeding grounds. In 2003, populations have rebounded, thanks to spring snow and rain in key areas of the breeding grounds where good nesting habitat still exists.
Q: Why did duck populations decline in 2001 and 2002?
A: Changes in duck populations are driven by a number of factors. One of the most important is the amount of water present in prairie pothole wetlands on the breeding grounds. In 2001 and 2002 much of the continent’s duck factory was drier than normal and, consequently, duck numbers declined. Drought is part of the natural cycle on the prairies, where most of our ducks are produced. No one can make it rain on the prairies, so DU’s goal is to make sure that there will always be sufficient habitat for ducks when the drought cycle ends. Recent history has shown us that, when weather conditions are right, there is sufficient habitat to support “booms” in duck populations. For example, during the wet period of 1994–1999 duck numbers increased 69%.
Q: What’s the most important thing we can do to help ensure healthy duck populations for the long term?
A: The most important thing we can do is to secure existing habitat and increase it wherever we have the opportunity. This is not just DU’s opinion. It is widely supported and practiced by the conservation community throughout the world. The most critical threat facing waterfowl is the continuing loss of important habitats. We lose more than 100,000 acres of wetlands and upland nesting habitat every year in the U.S. alone. That’s why DU’s singular focus is on conserving, restoring, and managing habitat for waterfowl.
Q: What about using predator control to produce more ducks?
A: On a local scale, predator control can provide immediate benefits to a few waterfowl, but it will not contribute to the long-term security of waterfowl habitat and waterfowl populations or abundance on a continental or even regional scale. Nor is there a lasting impact on waterfowl numbers, because as predators are removed they are quickly replaced, or other predator populations increase. Predators have to be removed every year, and that is not a realistic option over large areas or over the long term.
Q: Why doesn’t DU use predator control in addition to habitat conservation?
A: Predator control is not a responsible use of our supporters’ contributions. The best scientific research shows that killing predators cannot result in meaningful increases in duck numbers or birds in the bag. It also threatens to undermine the broad coalition of public support on which modern waterfowl conservation depends. Dollars diverted into killing predators are dollars lost to habitat conservation. And, nearly every dollar spent on habitat for waterfowl is matched from special funds, such as the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund, which is set aside for habitat work. Funds from other sources in the U.S. and Canada are also often available, resulting in many projects being able to leverage at least 3 or 4 dollars for every DU dollar. Dollars diverted to killing predators are not matched.
Q: Is Ducks Unlimited anti-trapping?
A: Absolutely not. DU supports trapping and fur harvest as important uses of renewable natural resources.
Q: Is Ducks Unlimited concerned about how the non-hunting public might view predator control?
A: Any wildlife management plan needs to consider how public opinion might affect its success. The majority of North Americans would seriously question the ethics of broad-scale predator control as a means to better hunting. Predator control kills fur-bearing animals during the spring and summer, when their pelts have no value and when the young furbearers are still dependent on their parents for survival. As a result, trapped adults are discarded and wasted and the young are abandoned to starve. Thus predator control for the purpose of raising more ducks is, unambiguously, an activity that plays directly into the hands of those who are anti-trapping or anti-hunting, and it could be used by anti-hunters to turn more people against hunting
Q: The issue of predator control seems to be creating a divide within the waterfowl hunting and conservation community. This can’t be good for duck hunters or waterfowl.
A: That’s right. Over the past decade, a broad-based culture of conserving wetlands and other wildlife habitat has matured in North America, especially among sportsmen. This has resulted in huge gains for wildlife. DU and its multitude of private and public partners are successful today because waterfowl hunters and other conservationists work together for the good of the resource. Other citizens from across a wide spectrum of society support waterfowl conservation because of the many additional benefits provided by waterfowl habitat.
There is great strength in our diversity and collective numbers, but waterfowl conservation will fail without all of us pulling in the same direction. Unfortunately, the promotion of lethal predator control is harming the future of waterfowl conservation by diverting resources away from habitat conservation, which is critical for sustaining waterfowl populations in the future.
Ducks Unlimited’s conservation vision is for viable waterfowl populations that support hunting and other uses forever. This is a daunting task, and it will only be achieved if all of our collective energies are successfully directed towards securing the habitats that will support the birds everywhere they live.
Q: Is Ducks Unlimited alone in its views on habitat conservation and predator control?
A: No. The wildlife management community at large agrees. For example, the Mississippi Flyway Council (composed of leaders of wildlife agencies from all states and provinces within the Mississippi Flyway) recently issued a statement against the practice of predator removal. In part, the statement read:
“The Mississippi Flyway Council (MFC) does not support the practice of predator removal as a viable management practice to improve waterfowl recruitment over the long term or over large geographic areas. The MFC believes that the highest conservation priorities for improving waterfowl recruitment are the landscape-scale wetland and grassland habitat restoration strategies advocated by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. Maintaining waterfowl breeding habitat is the highest priority for the long-term welfare of populations in North America.”
In August of 2003, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation’s Duck Committee (a group of concerned duck hunters and community leaders) published a report called: Improving the quality of duck hunting in Arkansas. One of the committee’s conclusions: “It all starts with the nest and proper habitat. The AWF Duck Committee has found that the more productive prairie pothole habitat we have, the more ducks we will have make the fall flight. Predator management may be helpful in small areas but is not believed to be practical on a large scale.”
Q: Scaup and pintail populations continue to decline. Could predator control help these species recover?
A: No, simply because their low numbers are not caused by predation. Biologists have reached a consensus that the pintail decline is mostly caused by changes in farming practices. In the prairies of the U.S. and Canada, farmers have greatly reduced fall tillage to control soil erosion, conserve moisture, and reduce fuel costs. The “stubble” that is left from the previous crop is actually attractive to pintails for nesting as it is structurally similar to the short-grass prairie that they favor. Pintails are the earliest nesting species and, in some years, hundreds of thousands of hens establish nests in the stubble only to have farm machinery destroy them when spring planting begins. Since they don’t re-nest as well as other ducks, most of the year’s production can be lost in just a few days each spring when farming begins. Predator control will clearly not solve this problem, but DU is working hard with farmers to incorporate more pintail-friendly farming practices (such as fall-seeded crops) into their crop rotations and converting marginal cultivated ground back into permanent grassland.
Most scaup nest in the Boreal Forest of Western Canada and Alaska. This is the largest ecosystem in the world and covers millions of square miles where scaup are dispersed widely and where predator control is simply not a feasible alternative. The most recent evidence of a major factor that is controlling scaup numbers comes from the Midwest, where Mike Anteau and Dr. Alan Afton, from Louisiana State University, have discovered that scaup are now about 80 grams lighter when they leave the prairies on their way to the boreal forest to breed. This is likely caused by degraded wetland conditions that affect their food supply just when they need it most to store fat and other nutrients for nesting. Predation is not a factor, but DU is continuing to support research to more clearly identify the issues that are actually driving scaup populations.