Ducks 2050

What might the coming decades hold for waterfowl and duck hunters?

By Scott Yaich, Ph.D.

The prospects are sobering, but if we act now, we can change the future.

The average age of a Ducks Unlimited member is about 50, so not too many of our “average” readers will be around in the year 2050. And while those of us lucky enough to be on the “right side of the grass” 43 years from now may not be hunting as often, we will undoubtedly enjoy hearing about the many hunting adventures of our children and grandchildren.
But many of us can easily remember back 43 years to 1964 and realize that a lot has changed since then. Most notably for waterfowl hunters, there were about 12 million more acres of wetlands in the United States than there are now. Now, think about your duck-hunting family and friends for a second, and I’ll bet you can quickly think of a few youngsters who are about seven years old. They could be “average” DU members when 2050 arrives. What changes might take place in the next 43 years to affect their future duck hunting? Will there still be enough habitat to fill the skies with ducks and provide places to hunt?

We are the custodians of our youth’s future. Futurist Joel Barker said, “No one will thank you for taking care of the present if you neglected the future.” What can we do to help future generations have the waterfowling experiences that we’ve enjoyed? While we can’t predict what 2050 will hold with any certainty, and projections vary, one thing is certain: There will be significant change. There are some clear trends. Many of these are undeniable and unavoidable, but waterfowl conservationists and hunters can adapt to other trends if we thoughtfully manage them. So, let’s think about what the future could look like in light of these trends, and seek insights into actions we can take now to help shape the future we want for coming generations of waterfowlers.

Drivers of Environmental Change

The fundamental driver of the changes to come is human population growth. The world’s population was 3.3 billion in 1964, is 6.5 billion now, and will likely be more than 9 billion by 2050. Closer to home, the U.S. population increased from 192 million to 300 million between 1964 and 2007, and projections indicate it will increase another 33 percent to about 400 million by 2050. More people will require more food, water, energy, and living space. Today, every person in the United States requires about 1.8 acres of farmland for his or her food. But even as we put more land into agriculture, there are limits to what is farmable, and we are already squeezing more productivity out of our prime farmland.

As Mark Twain purportedly said, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fightin’ over,” and the fightin’ has already begun. Agriculture uses more than 85 percent of all U.S. freshwater resources, and groundwater provides 31 percent of that. But groundwater is being used 25 percent faster than it is being recharged. At current pumping rates, the huge Ogallala Aquifer underlying much of the southern Great Plains will stop yielding significant amounts of water by 2050. Water demands for other uses will grow, too, competing with the needs of waterfowl. Water use in Texas is expected to increase 27 percent by 2050, and urban demand in already water-deficient California will increase 33 percent by 2030.  
All these people will need space, too. In 1950, only 9 percent of the United States was in metropolitan statistical areas. That will increase to 35 percent by 2050. By 2025, developed land will increase to 170 million acres from 95 million in 1997. In California, developed land will double from about 5 million to 10 million acres. This development will eliminate a lot of waterfowl habitat and affect much more due to the “bow-wave” effect that extends far beyond expanding development.
Finally, larger populations and higher standards of living will dramatically increase the demand for energy. World energy demand could increase 50-100 percent by 2020, and U.S. energy consumption could more than double by 2050. Many scientists believe energy use has been an important driver of worldwide climate change. Temperatures around the globe have increased as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations have increased, and 1997 through 2005 were the warmest years on record. Many waterfowlers have noticed possible impacts of climate change on their hunting.

Changes to Waterfowl Habitats and Populations

Our increased demands for food, water, energy, and living space could take a toll on waterfowl habitats and populations. Two factors—increases in agricultural acreage within a species’ range and the total number of threats faced by the species (habitat loss, pollution, and other stressors)—are the best predictors of waterfowl population decline. Long-term trends in both factors provide warnings as we look ahead and should help us focus on what we can do now to protect the future of waterfowl.

Breeding Habitats

The two most important waterfowl breeding regions in North America are the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) and western boreal forest. We cannot maintain waterfowl populations if we do not successfully conserve the capabilities of these regions to produce ducks. Increased losses of grassland will greatly affect the PPR, potentially eliminating millions of acres of native prairie and grassland nesting habitat. Only 4.1 million of the original 10 million acres of native grassland in the PPR’s Missouri Couteau remain today. Based on current trends, researchers project that there could be fewer than 3 million acres by 2067 (see sidebar). If the 2007 and future farm bills   remove incentives for conservation, millions of acres of nesting habitat will be lost. Conservation Reserve Program lands, which could be gone, produce over 2 million ducks per year, more than the harvest of the entire Atlantic Flyway. This habitat loss, along with the continuing loss of potholes and other wetlands, would significantly reduce waterfowl production from the region.

Climate change could also affect the PPR, but exactly how much isn’t clear. Although climate models vary widely regarding the possible impacts of climate change on the prairies, one model suggests that a warmer climate could dry as much as 91 percent of the wetlands in the PPR by the 2080s and that the breeding population of ducks there could decline by as much as 69 percent, which would dramatically affect waterfowl seasons across the nation.

In the western boreal forest, oil and gas production and tar sands mining could affect large areas of the landscape. By 2020, a total of 760 square miles in northern Alberta—much of it wetland—could be surface mined. DU is working closely with a variety of partners including energy companies to minimize impacts of natural resources extraction on wetlands and waterfowl populations in the boreal forest.

In addition to concerns about resources extraction, temperatures have increased more rapidly at higher latitudes, and millions of additional acres could be converted to agriculture as warmer climates expand northward. In the Far North, melting of the permafrost that underlies many wetlands is causing some of them to go dry. Nineteen percent of the ponds in nine study areas across Alaska disappeared between the 1950s and 2002. Some effects of climate change are now unavoidable, and there could be significant impacts to wetlands and waterfowl habitats in the western boreal forest and Arctic. Although this could potentially benefit some Arctic-breeding geese, boreal waterfowl species such as scaup, wigeon, and scoters could suffer.

Migration and Wintering Habitats

Some of the most important migration and wintering areas on the continent are also among the regions that will be at greatest risk by 2050. California’s Central Valley, the primary wintering area for much of the Pacific Flyway’s waterfowl, has already lost over 95 percent of its wetlands. The projected demands for living space and water put much of the remainder at risk. In the West, runoff from mountain snow accumulations provides 75 percent of the water used by people and agriculture. However, a warming climate could result in reduced snowpack in many western mountain ranges. By some estimates, water flowing from the Sierra Nevadas could be reduced by as much as 30 percent by the end of the century. Water availability and cost are serious threats to the future of waterfowl in this region.

The wintering landscape of the Gulf Coast may also be dramatically altered by 2050. Louisiana has already lost nearly 8 million acres of wetlands. It contains 40 percent of the remaining coastal wetlands in the Lower 48 states but loses 25-35 square miles per year. To make matters worse, projections indicate that sea level rise will accelerate and could be as high as 4.5 feet over the next century. As a result, millions of acres of the Gulf Coast’s wintering habitat could be inundated by the Gulf of Mexico and lost forever.

Other coastal habitats are also in serious jeopardy. University of Maryland researchers have projected that a relative sea level rise of approximately 3 feet in the mid-Atlantic region will inundate most of the region’s tidal marshes, and development will prevent wetlands from migrating inland with rising seas. Projections show that coastal intertidal habitats in Maine could be reduced by 20-70 percent over the next 100 years. And overall, some scientists believe North America could lose half its tidal wetlands by 2100.

Other areas, such as the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, may outwardly change less dramatically because development pressures will be lower. But a potential agricultural shift from rice to biofuel crops would greatly decrease the region’s ability to winter ducks, and waterfowl hunting would change dramatically.

Waterfowl Hunting

Changes in waterfowl hunting will likely be influenced by changes in the number of waterfowl hunters. About 15 million people hunted in 2001, about 6 percent of the U.S. population. But numbers have been steadily declining, and at current trends, there could be only about 11.5 million hunters, or about 3 percent of the 2050 population. Also, if long-term trends continue, waterfowl hunter numbers could slide from about 1.2 million now to a little over 800,000 by 2050. The erosion of hunter numbers would result in reduced financial support for conservation and management of wildlife habitats, and perhaps a decline in hunters’ political influence.

In addition, without changes in current hunter recruitment trends, these declines will accelerate. The percentage of 16- to 17-year-olds who hunt declined from 10 percent to 8 percent between 1991 and 2001, while the percentage of hunters over age 35 steadily increased from 53 percent to 67 percent. Hunters are growing old and leaving the sport faster than we are replacing ourselves. 

By 2050, habitat changes could significantly affect duck hunting. If changes in the PPR and western boreal forest result in smaller duck populations, reductions in hunting seasons would likely follow. On the other hand, some goose populations, such as snow geese and resident Canada geese, could be larger and could support more liberal seasons. There could also be a northerly shift in wintering areas, with midlatitude states like Missouri becoming better known as hunting hot spots.

Public hunting areas would perhaps be less crowded if hunter numbers dwindle. But because hunting license sales support management of public areas, they would likely be less well managed or even closed. Private lands would likely provide some phenomenal hunting because loss of other habitats could concentrate birds on these intensively managed areas. However, these areas would be exclusive and unaffordable to most hunters.

Can We Influence the Future of Waterfowl and Hunting?

The straightforward answer to that question is “YES!” Despite the seriousness of the challenges facing us, we should not passively accept this glance at the possible world of 2050 as a hopeless, “woe-is-us” scenario. Joel Barker also said, “You can and should shape your own future, because if you don’t someone else surely will.” To shape our own future and the future of ducks and duck hunting is the challenge we must accept.

There are indeed things that we cannot change. But we can influence many other things if we collectively choose to act upon the ones that are most important to waterfowl. There are many things that each of us can and should do (see sidebar on page 108). The needs are urgent. If we are going to secure our own future, we cannot put off taking action; we cannot assume “someone else” will take care of it. “Someone else” is busily shaping our future for us right now, so it is important that each of us acts now. The future duck hunting of those seven-year-olds you know, and everyone like them, depends on it.

Dr. Scott Yaich is director of conservation operations at DU’s national headquarters in Memphis.