By Wade Bourne
"Pair of mallards. Pintail drake. Pair of blue-winged teal."
Every time Fred Roetker calls out a duck sighting, a voice recorder captures his words. He clicks a button on his airplane yoke, and a computer records a GPS reading for the birds' location. After flying all morning, Roetker and his observer, Pat Stinson, download and tally their sightings before forwarding them to the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) Division of Migratory Bird Management in Laurel, Maryland. Weather permitting, they will be airborne again the next morning.
Roetker, a pilot-biologist with the USFWS, is taking part in the annual North American waterfowl breeding population and habitat survey. Each spring Roetker and Stinson and 11 other teams fan out across the breeding grounds of the northern United States and Canada, counting birds and ponds from the air. The pilot-biologists fly the same routes they and their predecessors have flown for the past 50 years. The numbers gathered from this survey and others, combined with harvest and banding data, will provide biologists with a fairly accurate picture of the size and health of North American waterfowl populations. The biologists can then begin to answer the questions that are on the mind of every duck and goose hunter on the continent: How long will the upcoming hunting seasons be? How many birds in the bag limit? What are the hunting dates? What are the prospects for the fall flight?
Roetker and Stinson's efforts are part of a large, complex system for collecting and using data to set hunting seasons. The process is repeated every year and involves dozens of wildlife agencies, hundreds of people, a long string of meetings, and negotiations that sometimes resemble a political debate. Good science is the base line, but social issues must also be considered.
Collectively, biologists and administrators must hammer out a framework for the new season, call for public comments, approve final regulations, and publish them in the Federal Register before the hunting season can begin. As one USFWS spokesman said, "The wheels of government usually turn slowly, but when it comes to setting waterfowl seasons, they spin amazingly fast."
Following is an overview of how waterfowl seasons come into being. The basic system remains the same over the long term, but the results, as all hunters know, change from year to year based on population surveys, habitat conditions, harvest figures, and other variables.