By Matt Young
With a few notable exceptions, North America's waterfowl have had a remarkable run. Total duck population estimates have hit record highs in three of the past four years as exceptionally wet weather has filled wetland basins across the prairies of the United States and Canada. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the 2014 estimate of breeding ducks in the traditional survey area was 49.2 million birds, an 8 percent increase from last year's total and the largest estimate since standardized surveys began in 1955.
In especially good news for waterfowlers, this year's mallard
breeding population of 10.9 million birds was just shy of the record estimate of 11.2 million birds set in 1958. Populations of gadwalls
, northern shovelers
, and blue-
and green-winged teal
were also at or near record highs, and American wigeon
were up a healthy 18 percent from last year's estimate. Populations of canvasbacks
, northern pintails
, and scaup
were similar to 2013 levels, and among these species only pintails remained significantly below the long-term average.
"This marks the 60th consecutive year that the USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service [CWS] have conducted the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey
, and the news from the 2014 survey was excellent," says Paul Schmidt, DU's chief conservation officer. "We are encouraged by the population trends of several duck species, especially American wigeon, which have come back strong during the past two years. We still have concerns about northern pintails and a few other species, but overall this certainly appears to be a good year for waterfowl. If production, weather, and local habitat conditions
are favorable, waterfowlers can look forward to another large fall flight."
This year's impressive duck numbers can be directly attributed to an abundance of water across most of the Prairie Pothole Region
. The 2014 estimate of approximately 7.2 million May ponds—the primary measure of wetland habitat availability on the prairies—was similar to last year's total and 40 percent above the long-term average. "As has been the case for the past several years, there was abundant moisture across many of North America's most important duck breeding areas this spring and summer," says Dr. Scott Yaich, DU's chief scientist. "That bodes well for duck breeding success, and, we hope, for hunting this fall. But the continuing and escalating loss of breeding habitat on the prairies remains a serious threat to waterfowl populations. Ducks need water, wetlands to hold the water, and upland cover to successfully nest and raise their young. If wetlands and grasslands continue to be lost across the Prairie Pothole Region, we will see an impact in the size of future fall flights."
May pond counts and waterfowl breeding population estimates are compiled during extensive air and ground surveys
conducted by the USFWS, 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.
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