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Setting the Hunting Season

An in-depth look at the complex, science-based process that safeguards waterfowl populations while maximizing hunting opportunity
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The Overall System

The system for setting new waterfowl hunting regulations must satisfy three requirements: legal, biological, and administrative.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918 mandated the legal requirement. This act gave the federal government authority to manage waterfowl populations, including setting hunting seasons. (Prior to 1918, this authority rested with individual states, which fostered broad differences in both hunting regulations and management philosophies.) The MBTA also stipulated that the managing federal agency must keep abreast of the status of the waterfowl resource. By law, if this legal requirement is not met, new hunting seasons cannot be opened.

This is where the biological requirement comes in. Before setting hunting seasons, regulators must collect and analyze data to check the size and health of duck and goose populations. If a problem develops, regulators must learn about it and adjust hunting pressure to protect the resource. Their goal is to maximize hunting opportunity, but the health of the resource comes first.

The administrative requirement defines the system and timeline that will be used to collect and analyze biological data and to draw up hunting frameworks. These frameworks must then be published, and the public must be allowed a comment period. Afterwards, frameworks are finalized by the U. S. Department of Interior and sent to the states, which then set individual seasons within the federal guidelines.

This is the regulation-setting process painted with a broad brush, but a closer look reveals many fascinating details. The process for setting each new season begins the previous January and runs almost to opening day the next fall. Data collection is extensive and ongoing. State and federal biologists meet to analyze the data and forge hunting recommendations. An enormous amount of work must be done between the start of this process and its end.

Getting Under Way

Setting a new hunting season is actually a joint effort between the USFWS and state wildlife agencies. Though the federal agency holds the authority for setting seasons, state wildlife agencies play an important role in the process.

State participation comes through the flyway councils: Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific. Each state sends representatives to its flyway's technical committee meetings and council meetings, and two "flyway consultants" from each council are chosen to serve as liaisons in meetings with federal officials.

The season-setting process kicks off with a conference in late January at the USFWS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. Flyway council consultants and members of the federal Service Regulations Committee convene to talk about issues that might arise in the current regulatory year. One result of this meeting is publication of a document that officially announces the intent of the USFWS to establish a hunting season the next fall and that also describes the procedure by which the seasons will be set.

In February and early March, flyway council technical committees meet to craft recommendations for the full flyway council meetings that follow later in March. Then the process idles while biologists conduct crucial population surveys on the breeding grounds.

Collecting the Numbers

The annual North American waterfowl breeding population and habitat survey is the most extensive wildlife census in the world. Twelve teams of pilot-biologists survey all major nesting areas in North America, counting waterfowl and assessing habitat from the Dakotas to the Arctic and from Canada's Maritime Provinces to Alaska. Flying an average of 150 feet above ground, these teams traverse a total of 80,000 miles over potholes, parklands, boreal forest, and tundra. They cover the same transects (straight overland routes) each spring in order to collect data that are comparable from one year to the next. Although geese and swans are counted, this is primarily a duck survey. (Additional surveys are conducted both on breeding and wintering grounds to assess the status of goose and swan populations.)

In both the United States and Canada, survey crews on the ground also count waterfowl along portions of aerial transects. This information enables USFWS statisticians to correct the aerial survey data for any waterfowl that may have been missed from the air.

The pilot-biologist teams and their counterparts on the ground work at a frenetic pace, trying to cover their survey transects as quickly as possible. Barring bad weather, by early June the teams transmit their survey numbers back to the Division of Migratory Bird Management, where they are totaled. Then USFWS survey specialists use complex computer programs to extrapolate the data into an overall population estimate.

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