USFWS also uses other data to gauge the status of waterfowl populations. The Harvest Information Program (HIP) measures hunters' harvest from the previous season. "There are around 1.5 million waterfowl hunters in the country, and of these, we send in-depth surveys to around 70,000," says Dr. Paul Padding, who oversees HIP. "From this group, we'll get approximately 40,000 responses. By compiling their reports, we can interpolate for all hunters and derive a fairly accurate estimate of total duck and goose harvest figures from the last season."
Data from the waterfowl parts survey supplements the HIP findings. Hunters selected to participate in the parts survey are asked to send in a wing from each duck and the tail feathers from each goose that they bag. "We collect around 90,000 duck wings and 20,000 goose tails annually," says Dr. Padding. "By examining these wings and feathers, we can identify species, sex, and age for ducks and species and age for geese. Each year we use this information to complete an annual estimate of harvest of all hunted species, and we do this in a timely fashion so this estimate can be factored into the regulations process for the following season.
"Another big value of our harvest estimates is to identify long-term trends in waterfowl populations," says Dr. Padding. "We can recognize a problem fairly quickly. Also, we can look back on how harvest figures were affected by hunting regulations that were in place in that season, and we can use this to predict how regulation changes (adjusting season length, bag limit, etc.) will alter harvest numbers."
Banding programs are yet another source of information about waterfowl populations, providing estimates of harvest rates, survival rates, and distribution of the harvest.
When the numbers from the waterfowl breeding population and habitat survey start rolling in, biologists shift into high gear, analyzing the data and drawing up proposals for the new seasons. Time is now short, and work must be done quickly.
This effort is divided into two schedules: "early" for setting migratory bird seasons that start in early September (including teal and teal/wood duck seasons, early Canada goose seasons, etc.) and "late" for setting duck and goose seasons that start after late September.
Dr. Robert Blohm, deputy chief of the Division of Migratory Bird Management for the USFWS, explains, "Final frameworks must be published in August for early-season regulations and in September for late-season regulations. The processes for both these schedules are the same. The only difference is in the timing."
As waterfowl population estimates become available, the USFWS compiles them into the Waterfowl Status Report, a document containing population estimates by species, graphs of population trends, and other information. "This report includes an analysis of habitat conditions and the outlook for production," says Dr. Blohm. "It contains all the information we can bring to bear that will affect hunting seasons. This report is a summary of our best judgment of the current status of waterfowl and what's coming in the immediate future." (The USFWS also produces a video version of this report and disseminates it broadly among the biological community and media.)
The Service Regulations Committee (SRC), USFWS biologists, and flyway consultants meet in Virginia in June to review status information for early-season species like blue-winged teal. At this time, committee members and consultants consider frameworks for early migratory bird seasons, and the SRC develops its recommendations for the early-season frameworks. These are forwarded to the director of the USFWS for review and then to the secretary of interior for approval. Then the frameworks are published as proposals in the Federal Register. After allowing adequate time for public comment, final frameworks are issued in late August.
Next, the flyway councils meet in July to mull over late-season regulations. Each council considers the Waterfowl Status Report and develops recommended regulations to pass back to the SRC, where hunting season frameworks are drawn up.
In years past, these flyway council meetings frequently featured spirited debate among representatives from individual states. Everything was on the table: earliest opening and latest closing dates, season lengths, bag limits, zones, special seasons, and shooting hours. State representatives lobbied strongly for the package that would offer the greatest opportunity for hunters back home.
But today this contentiousness is largely gone, thanks to a new system called adaptive harvest management (AHM), started in 1995. Under AHM, three regulatory options are available for duck hunting: liberal, moderate, and restrictive. This system suggests automatic selection of one of these options based on the size of the continental breeding population of mallards and the Canadian pond index. It takes the guesswork—and the politics—out of framework selection, thus removing the main source of debate among flyway council representatives.
Still, there are smaller issues to be resolved and management decisions to be reached. Each set of flyway consultants takes its council's recommendations to another SRC meeting in Arlington, Virginia, in late July. The SRC reviews information on the status of waterfowl, weighs recommendations from the flyway councils, and then draws up its proposals for the late-season frameworks.
David Hayden, an assistant chief of wildlife for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, is one of the flyway consultants from the Mississippi Flyway Council. "Most of the 'heavy lifting' is done by the time we get to this meeting," Hayden says. "The compromises have usually been worked out, and the Fish and Wildlife Service agrees with most of our recommendations. Still, if we bring in something we've done on our own, they might not go along. But usually everybody agrees on the primary hunting season. In everything we do, the bottom line is, 'What is best for the resource?' " Hayden emphasizes.