Setting the Hunting Season

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

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.

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.

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.

Crunch Time

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.

The Home Stretch

Following the same process that took place for early seasons, the SRC forwards its recommendations for late-season frameworks to the USFWS director and then to the secretary of interior. The proposed frameworks are published in the Federal Register for public comment, and the final frameworks are issued in mid-September.

After establishment of the new framework, the final step is for each state to set its waterfowl season within the guidelines issued by the USFWS. Many state wildlife commissions hold public hearings to gather local comments. Then they choose specific dates, bag limits, shooting hours, and other variables that come with a local option. States may set a more conservative season than that offered under the federal framework (fewer ducks in the bag, fewer hens, a shorter season, etc.), but they can never set a more liberal season.

Each state then sends a "selection letter" back to the USFWS, notifying the federal agency of the state's choice of dates, bag limits, etc. When all selection letters are received, the USFWS publishes all states' seasons in the Federal Register, and hunting may commence.

The Years Roll By

Setting each year's waterfowl regulations is a long, laborious process that extends from January through September and involves the efforts of scores of wildlife professionals. It requires tens of thousands of man-hours of work. It endures the weight of government regulation, and it incorporates the latest and best in management technology.

And it works. Seasons click by, one after another, year after year. Hunters accept new regulations sometimes with glee, sometimes with grumbling, and generally with little understanding of how the seasons and bag limits came into being.

But because of this process, duck hunters can continue to hunt with the assurance that the waterfowl resource is being protected, that hunting opportunity is maximized relative to the health of the resource, and that many dedicated professionals are working to ensure that waterfowl and the traditions they engender live on. It's about the birds. It's a giant effort and a labor of love.

50 Years and Still Counting

2005 marked the 50th anniversary of the North American waterfowl breeding population and habitat survey, the world's most comprehensive and longest-running wildlife population survey. The U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey—forerunner of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)—initiated aerial waterfowl counts during the 1930s. Biologists typically conducted these early surveys aboard military aircraft or chartered private planes. After World War II, the USFWS acquired its own fleet of surplus military aircraft and hired a corps of fulltime pilot-biologists, many of whom received their flight training in the military.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, USFWS pilot-biologists and their colleagues working on the ground began a series of experimental spring waterfowl surveys on important breeding areas in the United States and Canada. In 1955, the USFWS and its partners launched the first comprehensive waterfowl breeding population and habitat survey of North America. The information collected during this annual survey has been the bedrock of waterfowl management ever since.