By Dale Humburg
States set the season dates and bag limits for deer, turkeys, pheasants, and other game species; why not for ducks and geese? Actually, that was the case during the early 20th century, when waterfowl regulations were established by individual states. As a result, seasons and bag limits often varied considerably from one state to the next. Of course, that provided little opportunity for the continental management of North America's waterfowl, which regularly cross state, provincial, and international boundaries during migration.
Today, waterfowl regulations are drafted under the auspices of an international treaty, occur within federal frameworks established for each flyway, and are adjusted by states to account for migration timing and hunter preferences. At each level, recommendations and decisions are based on the best available science, more than a century of experience, and opportunities for public input. That's not to say that the transition from state-based waterfowl harvest management to a federal framework was easy. The first two decades of the 20th century saw considerable resistance from states' rights proponents, market hunters, and commercial shooting interests. But conservation-minded citizens and policymakers were persistent in their efforts to establish a unified approach to waterfowl management, and they ultimately prevailed.
The Birth of Continental Waterfowl Management
The continental basis for waterfowl management in North America was established in 1916 by an international treaty formally known as the Convention between the United States and Great Britain [on behalf of Canada] for the Protection of Migratory Birds. This landmark agreement, which later included conventions with Mexico, Japan, and the Soviet Union, was implemented in the United States by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918. The law provides broad protections for migratory birds, but also allows for the regulated hunting of waterfowl and other game birds as long as it's compatible with the health of the resource.
Under the MBTA, migratory bird hunting is accompanied by the responsibility to monitor populations and harvest. Each year federal, state, and provincial agencies work together to band more than 250,000 ducks and geese, survey more than 20 million square miles of breeding habitat, and assess the harvest and hunting activity of well over 1 million waterfowlers. These cooperative efforts have provided the data required to regulate waterfowl harvests across North America for more than 60 years.
Although the MBTA granted authority to the federal government for waterfowl harvest management in the United States, it took a few decades for the regulatory process to evolve. The catastrophic drought of the 1930s served as a stark reminder of the threats facing waterfowl and their habitats and was the impetus for a series of major conservation milestones during that decade. These included the passage of the Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp Act (1934) and the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (1937), and the founding of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit program (1935) and Ducks Unlimited (1937).
The waterfowl crisis of the Dirty Thirties also resulted in changes to waterfowl hunting regulations. Live decoys, sinkboxes, baiting, and shotguns larger than 10-gauge were prohibited, and a three-shell limit was placed on repeating shotguns used for waterfowling. The Bureau of Biological Survey, the forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), wrote that these regulations were necessary because "only by restricting the kill will it be possible to send more birds back to the newly created breeding grounds."
When the flyway system of waterfowl management was established in the late 1940s, states became more active in the process of setting waterfowl regulations. Previously, seasons were set by latitude—early in the northern states and later in southern states. Waterfowl banding data provided the basis for both the biological and administrative flyways that we know today.
While ultimately under federal authority, waterfowl harvest regulations are developed cooperatively by the USFWS and state representatives in each of the four flyways. Ducks Unlimited stays informed about the regulations, but is not involved in the process. Instead, DU focuses on what it does best: conserving habitat. Biological data are reviewed by federal and state biologists who monitor the status of waterfowl populations, habitat conditions, and harvest trends. Formally, the regulations process involves proposals developed by each flyway. These recommendations are considered by the USFWS Service Regulations Committee, which is composed of federal officials and flyway policy representatives who serve as consultants. The USFWS then makes a recommendation to the assistant secretary of the interior, who makes the final decision on the regulations. Throughout this process, proposals are published in the Federal Register for public comment. Ultimately, the final rules include the frameworks for season dates and lengths as well as bag and possession limits.
Progress in Waterfowl Harvest Management
There has always been some uncertainty and disagreement about the impact of harvest regulations on waterfowl populations. Historically, liberal hunting regulations have prevailed under favorable habitat conditions on the breeding grounds, which usually coincide with larger waterfowl populations. Shorter seasons and more restrictive bag limits were instituted when habitat conditions and bird numbers declined. Changes in season lengths and bag limits from one season to the next were common from the late 1940s through the early 1970s. Year-to-year adjustments in harvest regulations for certain species, such as canvasbacks, redheads, American black ducks, wood ducks, and hen mallards, were not unusual. Throughout this era, it was virtually impossible to detect the effect of harvest on waterfowl populations because regulations were constantly changing.
New banding analysis methods and a five-year period of stabilized regulations during the early 1980s provided valuable information about harvest management and its impact on waterfowl populations. During the mid-1980s, however, another severe drought gripped the Prairie Pothole Region, and regulations were once again restricted—an appropriate course of action in light of the MBTA's mandate to protect waterfowl populations. Nevertheless, the trend toward more stable regulations continued. In 1988, the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement on the Sport Hunting of Migratory Birds acknowledged that uncertainty still existed about the impact of harvest on waterfowl populations, and outlined a preferred alternative that involved stabilized regulations and limited use of "special" regulations.
New analytical tools, research, and policy guidance combined with decades of experience set the stage for Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) in the mid-1990s. Under AHM, predictions about harvest impacts are tested against long-term objectives, while distinct sets of season lengths and bag limits preclude the annual tinkering with regulations that occurred in previous decades. Changes made within a limited number of regulatory options are based on predicted versus measured population levels, habitat conditions, and harvest rates. Since 1995, the primary basis for waterfowl regulations has been AHM.
In 2015, the USFWS implemented a new regulations process that consolidated all migratory bird hunting recommendations into a timetable set several months earlier than before. Annual hunting seasons are now based on the prior year's population and harvest data. This allows plenty of time to complete the required administrative process, provides more time for public comment, and ensures plenty of advance notice for hunters to plan their seasons.
The regulations schedule for the upcoming 2018−2019 season was announced in the Federal Register in August 2017, and specific regulations alternatives were published in early October, with public comment due by mid-January 2018. In the interim, the flyways and the Service Regulations Committee convened to propose hunting season frameworks. These were published in early February, with public comment due in early March. The final frameworks for season lengths and bag limits in each flyway will be published this summer (see bottom of this article).
Setting Hunting Regulations by Flyway
Each flyway is unique in its hunting culture, species affiliations, and waterfowl habitats. In the contiguous United States, the four flyways are given the same overall season framework, which currently runs from the Saturday nearest September 24 to the last Sunday in January. In Alaska, the season framework runs from September 1 to January 26. Canada and Mexico also establish their waterfowl seasons under the MBTA mandate, but independently of other countries. Season lengths and bag limits vary among flyways and nations due to differences in migration patterns, hunter numbers, harvest pressure, and waterfowl abundance. Generally, hunting seasons and bag limits are more liberal in the Pacific and Central Flyways (as well as in Canada and Mexico) than in the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways, which have more restrictive regulations.
Under AHM, regulations are largely determined by the population status of specific mallard "stocks" derived from defined breeding areas. In previous years, the Atlantic Flyway based much of its season framework on the status of eastern mallards, which originate in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. However, waterfowl managers have adjusted the harvest strategy centered on mallards, which account for only 20 percent or less of the flyway's total duck harvest. Instead, a more inclusive harvest strategy based on multiple species is being implemented (see "Understanding Waterfowl" on page 22 of the printed magazine for more information). Midcontinent mallards, which breed from the Boreal Forest across the Prairie Pothole Region to the Great Lakes, are the basis for season frameworks in the Mississippi and Central Flyways. And regulations in the Pacific Flyway are largely based on western mallards, which are surveyed in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, California, and a portion of British Columbia.
AHM also provides a structured process for prescribing regulations for black ducks, northern pintails, and scaup. Regulations for other species, such as canvasbacks, redheads, and mottled ducks, are developed collaboratively by the USFWS, the flyways, and the states. Seasons and bag limits for early teal as well as doves, rails, gallinules, coots, sandhill cranes, and swans are also included in this process, and are determined by specific working groups composed of state and federal biologists.
Each State Is Different
In many states, the real balancing act for waterfowl managers involves designing seasons that satisfy the wide-ranging preferences of hunters. Zones and split seasons are used to distribute hunting opportunity as equitably as possible, but managers have only so much flexibility while working within federal frameworks. Frankly, it can be nearly impossible to provide the optimal season for everyone.
Certainly, the large waterfowl populations and liberal regulations that we've enjoyed during the past two decades have made the process of setting waterfowl seasons a lot easier than it was during times of restricted regulations. No one would have predicted the 20-plus years of relatively long seasons and generous bag limits that we've seen since the mid-1990s. However, hunters shouldn't take today's hunting opportunities for granted. History tells us that habitat conditions and duck populations are highly variable over the long term, making a return to more restrictive regulations almost inevitable at some point in the future. We also know that the ducks will bounce back if they have sufficient habitat to support large populations when wetland conditions are favorable. While debate will undoubtedly continue about the impact of hunting regulations on waterfowl populations, we must always remain focused on our fundamental objective, which is the well-being of the birds and their habitats.
Dale Humburg retired earlier this year as senior science advisor for Ducks Unlimited.
Frameworks Announced for the 2018−2019 Waterfowl Season
Harvest regulations for the upcoming waterfowl season will be almost unchanged from those of recent years. In the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, the duck season will be 60 days. In both flyways, the bag limit will be six ducks, including no more than four mallards (only two of which can be females). The Central Flyway is divided into two zones. In the eastern portion of the flyway, the season will be 74 days. In the High Plains Mallard Management Unit (roughly the portion west of the 100th Meridian), the season will be 97 days. Throughout the flyway, the bag limit will be six ducks, including no more than five mallards (only two of which can be females). In the Pacific Flyway, the season will be 107 days, with a daily bag limit of seven ducks, including no more than two female mallards. With the exception of the bag limit for northern pintails, which will increase from one to two birds this season, limits for other duck species will remain the same as last year's in all flyways.
Individual states can set regulations that are more restrictive, but not more liberal, than those provided within federal frameworks. Check the appropriate regulations that apply in the areas where you plan to hunt.