How Good Were the Good Old Days?

Hunting success have always been highly variable


Photo © Frank Clavert

By Mark Petrie, Ph.D.

Fall 1962. Hunters willing to trade $3 for a duck stamp faced the most restrictive regulations in the history of waterfowl management. Those in the Mississippi Flyway found themselves restricted to a 23-day season and a two-bird limit. Hunters who insisted on shooting only mallards were required to retrieve their decoys after a single bird. That's right, a one-mallard limit! Selective or not, duck hunters in the Mississippi Flyway shot just three birds each on average that year but were not alone in his misery, as restricted seasons were enacted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Fewer duck stamps were sold than at any time since 1939, when America was still in a 10-year vise of depression and drought. Waterfowlers reluctantly extended their fishing seasons, or turned their attention to deer. Hardware store owners complained of unwanted shells. Dogs paced. Spouses rejoiced.

How had it gotten this bad? Just three years before, hunters had enjoyed long seasons and generous bags.

The 1950s not only brought an economic boom to post-war America, the decade also delivered a string of wet years to the prairies breeding grounds. You could afford to hunt and there were ducks to be hunted. By 1959 all that changed. Winter storms that had reliably filled potholes for a decade now stayed bottled up in the Arctic. By 1961 the prairies were in the midst of a ferocious drought. Hunters with long memories nervously recalled the 1930s, wondering if they were facing another decade of dust and disappointment. In the end they would harvest just 4 million ducks in 1961, the lowest number ever recorded before or since.

Thirty-six years later, the descendants of the Class of ‘62 would experience one of the best seasons in the history of modern waterfowling. In 1998, hunters enjoyed record harvests across the United States as they took advantage of high duck numbers, long seasons, and liberal bags. In all, hunters would harvest more than 16 million ducks in 1998. Men and women who carried cell phones and $900 shotguns into the blind suddenly found themselves back in the good old days.

Many of us who enjoyed that season began our hunting careers well after 1962. While we've all experienced the annual mood swings of duck hunting, it might be interesting to examine hunter success across several decades. Frankly, many hunters during the past two or three years have not had the kinds of seasons they enjoyed in the mid- to late 1990s. Is this the start of a long-term decline in hunter fortunes, or is it part of a cycle that has repeated itself since we began collecting statistics on hunter success? While reducing hunter success to a number ignores the intangibles of our sport, taking a look at these numbers might put past seasons in perspective and provide a clue to the future.

Back in 1961, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began collecting information on waterfowl harvest and hunter activity using an annual survey that was randomly mailed to people who had purchased a duck stamp. That system was recently replaced by the Harvest Information Program (HIP), but more on that later. The mail survey provided a host of information on hunter numbers, the average days spent hunting, and how many ducks survey respondents had killed. As a result, the USFWS was able to generate statistics that provide some clues to hunter success. For our purposes, we'll examine both the total number of ducks harvested and the average number of ducks harvested per hunter and look for changes in hunter success over the past five decades.

Total Duck Harvest

Total harvest includes all species of ducks and can be broken down by country, flyway, or state. A look at total duck harvest over the past 40 years provides no evidence that we are shooting fewer birds (figure 1). Total harvest in the United States increased steadily through the 1960s, remained high for most of the 1970s, and then declined during the 1980s. Duck harvests began to show signs of recovery in the early 1990s, but by the second half of that decade, harvest had returned to 1970s levels.

Although duck harvests surged through the 1990s, the trend began to reverse itself by the end of the decade. The USFWS had discontinued its mail questionnaire in 2001, replacing it with the HIP survey. HIP is intended to provide a more accurate picture of waterfowl harvests by requiring all migratory bird hunters to register and provide information about their hunting activity when they purchase a license each year. By 2001, hunters were beginning to feel a downturn in fortune, even with liberal regulations in place.

Unfortunately, results of the HIP and the former mail survey are not strictly comparable. While this prevents us from having a complete set of data from 1961 to 2003, we can examine HIP results for the past four years.

Duck harvest estimates obtained from HIP surveys between 1999 and 2003 seem to confirm hunter impressions of reduced hunting success. Total duck harvest declined steadily between 1999 (16.1 million) and 2002 (12.7 million), with only a slight recovery in 2003 (13.3 million). While many hunters have been understandably disappointed during the past couple of years, we need to place these recent seasons in perspective. The low harvests of the early and mid-1960s yielded to the better days of the 1970s, just as the 1980s were ultimately replaced by record harvests in the 1990s. The smaller harvests of the past couple of years are likely part of a longer trend in the ups and downs of hunter success, not an irreversible decline. Moreover, total harvest during the 2003 season was still three times that of 1962!         

The fact that duck harvests increase in response to rising duck numbers should surprise no one. Bag limits and season lengths are tied to breeding duck numbers. More ducks equal larger bags and longer seasons, and it follows that total harvest should increase when duck populations are high. That being said, weather and local habitat conditions often have a profound influence on regional hunter success. Even in years with a large fall flight, individual hunters can have poor success if wetlands are in poor condition or unusually warm weather delays the arrival of migrating waterfowl in their area.    

Seasonal Duck Bag Per Hunter

Total duck harvests by flyway provide some interesting statistics, but they're a little impersonal when trying to judge the success of your season. Years in which duck harvest goes up are also the years in which hunter numbers rise as liberal bag limits and glowing reports from the prairies make duck stamps a hot commodity. While the pie (number of ducks) is bigger, there are more hunters to share it and no guarantee that your season will be better than when duck numbers were low.

A better measure of hunter success may be the number of ducks bagged per hunter, otherwise known as the average seasonal bag. To shed more light on the history of hunter success, we plotted the average seasonal bag between 1961 and 2001 for each flyway, as well as for the entire United States.

A 40-year look at seasonal bags reveals some interesting trends. The annual bag of U.S. hunters increased substantially throughout the 1990s. In fact, the average number of ducks harvested per hunter during these years was higher than at any time since 1961. In 1988, the typical U.S. hunter averaged just 4.7 birds for the entire season. Ten years later that number had increased to 12 birds, a 150 percent jump (figure 2). Unfortunately, the increase in seasonal bags that began in the 1990s has transitioned to a decline during the last few years. Still, these recent reversals in hunter fortune are as predictable as they are disappointing. Nowhere in the 40 years of tracking hunter statistics do we see a promise of uninterrupted success. What we do see are periods of decline followed almost inevitably by better days. There is no reason to believe that the recent drop in seasonal bags won't be followed by future increases. Duck hunting offers us many things, but consistent results are not among them.

What is different about the recent decline in hunter success is that harvest regulations have remained virtually unchanged during this period. Liberal harvest regulations have stayed in place even though a variety of statistics suggest that hunter success has declined over the past two or three years. This is important because hunter expectations and harvest regulations have always been linked. In other words, hunters expect the hunting to be better when harvest regulations allow long seasons and large bags.

Beginning in 1995, the USFWS implemented Adaptive Harvest Management or AHM as a way to simplify duck harvest regulations and to learn more about the effects of hunting on duck populations. AHM has streamlined the setting of duck laws by offering waterfowl managers three basic choices: restrictive, moderate, or liberal seasons. Seasons are chosen using data that incorporate mallard population estimates and spring wetland numbers on the Canadian prairies. Under AHM, harvest regulations have remained unchanged in recent years, even though breeding duck numbers have seen noticeable declines. In fact, liberal harvest regulations have now been in place for 10 consecutive years, while breeding duck populations have varied by as much as 12 million birds during this period. This is very different from past decades when even modest changes in duck populations might prompt a shift in harvest regulations.

Harvest regulations have become less sensitive to changes in duck numbers, reflecting our better understanding of how hunting affects duck populations. Most evidence now indicates that duck populations are regulated by breeding ground success, not the number of birds we shoot. As a result, waterfowl managers have become more comfortable with allowing longer seasons, even when duck populations aren't booming. This does not mean that conservative seasons won't be enacted when breeding duck numbers decline below a certain level. What it does mean is that liberal seasons are now permitted across a wider range of breeding duck numbers than was allowed in the past. In other words, it no longer takes record or near-record duck populations to result in those long seasons that many of us wish for.

By permitting liberal seasons more frequently, AHM has changed the relationship between harvest regulations and hunter expectations. The fact is we can now have liberal seasons even when duck populations are only at average levels. This loosening of the duck laws is allowing us to enjoy longer seasons and more days in the field. However, liberal regulations no longer suggest the kind of increase in total harvest that we often saw in the past.   
Hunters today benefit from a better understanding of how harvest affects duck populations. The end result is that longer seasons are more common than they used to be, and today's regulations are more likely to maximize harvest opportunity than they were in the past. This is no small development in the history of hunter success.

So, here's to the duck hunters of 1962 who answered a 3 a.m. alarm for the chance at a single mallard. Today's hunters should keep this in mind as we contemplate our expectations for hunting success this season and in the future. 

AHM: What Have We Learned?

The stated objective of the Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) system, implemented in 1995 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is to maximize harvest opportunities for waterfowlers without adversely affecting duck populations. Also, by testing the accuracy of competing mathematical models designed to predict how annual harvest regulations impact duck populations relative to changing breeding habitat conditions, AHM also is intended to help determine the impact hunting has on duck populations. The big question in many waterfowler's minds is: how well is AHM working and what have we learned?

One way to approach these questions is to examine how well the average seasonal bag tracks the breeding duck population estimates that are used to set harvest regulations.  In some ways the average seasonal bag is the best measure of hunting opportunity because it's dependant on season length and daily limits. If we compare average seasonal bag and duck populations between 1961 and 2001, we notice a curious trend (Figure 8).  From 1961 to the early 1990's, the average seasonal bag generally tracked the size of the breeding population.  However, the relationship between seasonal bag and breeding populations really tightened up in the mid-1990's when AHM began.

The tighter the relationship between average seasonal bag and the size of the duck population, the greater the likelihood that we are maximizing harvest opportunities because opportunity should rise with rising duck populations (and fall with falling duck populations). Also, given that duck populations have remained relatively stable in recent years despite liberal harvest regulations and mediocre habitat conditions on the prairies, we can assume the regulations have not had an adverse impact on duck populations.