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Conservation: Ducks in a Crowded World

Sustaining healthy waterfowl numbers will be a great challenge as the earth's human population grows
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—By Michael G. Anderson, Ph.D. 

This past July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service estimated that 45.6 million breeding ducks had settled in the traditionally surveyed area of the United States and Canada, the largest estimate recorded since 1955. After 18 years of mostly wet weather across the Prairie Pothole Region, millions of acres of upland nesting cover provided by the Conservation Reserve Program in the United States, 25 years of successful conservation partnerships delivered by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in both countries, prudent harvest management, and some simple good fortune, most of this continent's waterfowl were doing remarkably well. 

Then, on Halloween, the United Nations projected that for the first time the number of people currently living on earth had reached 7 billion. When I was an undergraduate in college not that long ago, the earth's human population was half that size and analysts were already concerned about its impacts on limited resources. What does this have to do with ducks? The answer is that the earth's rapidly growing human population will pose an enormous challenge to waterfowl and the people who enjoy them. Paradoxically, at a time when we celebrate the renewed abundance of waterfowl, we also face profound long-term challenges to sustaining them.

In the conservation business we must think long term. Sustainability is key. Over the past five decades conservationists have learned much about what landscape features and conditions are required to sustain waterfowl populations—wetlands of various types for food and shelter, thick grass or flooded cattails for nesting cover, adequate food resources and sanctuary on migration and wintering areas, and more. We have also learned that the most productive wetlands for breeding waterfowl are located in areas with fertile underlying soils and a moderate climate, such as the prairie potholes of the Dakotas and southern Canada. On migration and wintering areas, historical floodplain wetlands, coastal marshes, and seasonally flooded agricultural fields are vital to sustaining waterfowl populations at healthy levels. These habitats are also under pressure from development.

As the earth's human population continues to soar in the years ahead, sustainability will be vital to our future as well. Seven billion is a lot of mouths to feed. At a current growth rate of about 1.3 percent (estimates for this vary) we add 250,000 people to the earth's population every single day; that's roughly a new New York City every month. Most of this growth is occurring in Africa and Asia. The number of people in North America is growing too, but at a more modest rate.   

Arable land is already in short supply worldwide, and every day the earth's capacity to grow crops is degraded by soil erosion, desertification, depletion of aquifers, and salinization, largely related to unsustainable agricultural practices. We also rely on the earth's finite agricultural land base to produce much of the fiber that clothes us as well as biofuels to help power our cars and industries.  

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