By Matt Young
If you are a waterfowler, it's a fact of life that duck populations seldom remain at high levels for more than a few years at a time. Instead, waterfowl numbers fluctuate in concert with highly variable weather and habitat conditions
on the breeding grounds
, especially in the Prairie Pothole Region
, where more than half of North America's ducks are raised. If you hunt long enough, you will experience these highs and lows firsthand, both in terms of hunting opportunities and the number of ducks you see from the blind.
In recent years, waterfowl numbers have once again been on the upswing, and in 2011 duck populations soared to record highs, thanks to exceptional wetland conditions across the prairies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reports that the May pond count on the prairies increased 22 percent from 6.7 million ponds in 2010 to 8.1 million ponds this spring.
The 2011 breeding population estimate for the 10 most common duck species
in the traditional survey area was 45.6 million birds—an 11 percent increase from the previous year's estimate and the largest total estimate since surveys began in 1955. Mallards had a breeding population of 9.2 million birds—up 9 percent from last year and the largest estimate since 2000. In more good news for waterfowl hunters, blue-winged teal, redheads, and shovelers reached record highs this spring. In addition, pintails had a breeding population of 4.4 million birds, a 26 percent increase from the previous year and the first time this population has surpassed 4 million birds since 1980. Populations of all other duck species in the traditional survey area were statistically similar to last year. Only two species—scaup and American wigeon—were below their long-term averages.
While this year's waterfowl survey results are certainly cause for celebration, DU Chief Scientist Dale Humburg cautions that large waterfowl breeding populations don't necessarily guarantee great hunting
everywhere in the fall. "I'm optimistic about the upcoming waterfowl season
, but many variables can impact hunting success," Humburg says.
"For example, some regions are experiencing severe drought, while other areas have suffered impacts from record flooding. These and other extreme weather events could have dramatic effects on the migration and the distribution of waterfowl this fall and winter, which could in turn affect hunting success in some parts of the country."
May pond counts and waterfowl breeding population estimates are compiled during extensive air and ground surveys conducted by the USFWS, Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), state and provincial wildlife agencies, and other partners. These surveys are essential to managing waterfowl populations and setting annual hunting regulations. The following report provides an overview of the status of habitat conditions and waterfowl populations across key breeding areas in the United States and Canada.