Ducks, Habitat and Hunters

Maintaining our waterfowling tradition is vital to the future of wetlands and waterfowl

by Dale Humburg

Waterfowling traditions, although sometimes difficult to define, are driven by a passion for wetlands and waterfowl. How else can you explain our willingness to strike out in the middle of the night in freezing temperatures and high winds with the hope—often not realized—of ducks in the decoys? And no sooner has one waterfowl season ended than we begin thinking about the next. By midsummer (or earlier for those especially stricken with duck fever), we are actively preparing for opening day. Simply enjoying the sights and sounds of the marsh and relating these experiences to others who share the same passion are also part of the waterfowling tradition. In many respects, it's this undefined and innate appeal of waterfowl and wetlands that drives the traditions that support their conservation.

In 1937, Frederick Lincoln, the father of the flyway system, offered the following testimony to Congress on the plight of ducks during the Dust Bowl era: "It is my opinion at the present time that we have about a third of the number of ducks and geese that we had 10 or 15 years ago...Furthermore, I am not satisfied that we can have the population we had 10 or 15 years ago, as I am not sure we could accommodate them all. Nevertheless, I am satisfied that we are steadily progressing toward the time when we can enjoy reasonable sport."

Clearly, Lincoln understood that ducks, habitat, and hunters are all linked. And waterfowl managers have spent the better part of the last century working to balance these elements of the management equation. For much of this time, managers were largely concerned with the impact hunters had on waterfowl populations through harvest. And for the most part, the primary decisions made by managers have involved adjusting bag limits and hunting season timing and length. Until recently, little explicit consideration was given to waterfowl hunting participation in these decisions. But that's all starting to change.

The human dimensions of waterfowl hunting

Ducks Unlimited, state and federal agencies, and the shooting sports industry all recognize the vital role hunters play in wildlife management and habitat conservation. As a result, these groups are proactively working on many fronts to foster greater hunter retention and recruitment. One of the most significant recent trends in waterfowl management involves the science of human dimensions. Hunter participation and their satisfaction with hunting opportunity, success, and quality have been studied in the past, but this research generally has not had a major influence on management decisions. Recent work by experts in the social sciences has begun to define how the attitudes and opinions of waterfowl hunters are related to waterfowl habitat conservation. Questions have emerged about the motivations and barriers to hunting participation, the nature of mentoring and recruitment, and how the shift from a rural to urban culture has changed the social landscape.

Why is this important? The most obvious answer is that waterfowl hunters are an important source of revenue for state and federal conservation programs. Financial support from duck and goose hunters has been a foundation of wetlands conservation ever since the federal duck stamp was first issued in 1934. Waterfowlers have contributed billions of dollars to wildlife management by purchasing duck stamps and hunting licenses, paying excise taxes on sporting arms and ammunition through the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (Pittman-Robertson Act), and donating to conservation organizations. Over the past 72 years, DU members and volunteers alone have raised more than $2.5 billion, which has helped conserve 12.6 million acres of waterfowl habitat across North America. In addition, DU members are a powerful constituency for wetlands and waterfowl conservation, and their continued support—especially in the public policy arena—will be essential to sustain healthy populations of ducks and geese in the future.

Hunters also contribute to wetlands conservation by managing private lands for waterfowl. In some areas of North America, private wetland owners provide the majority of the habitat available to waterfowl. Wetlands in the Central Valley of California; confluence floodplain of the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois rivers; Great Lakes region; Atlantic Coast; and Mississippi Alluvial Valley would long ago have been converted to other uses had waterfowling interests not conserved them. And as waterfowl management and policies are developed in the future, consideration of private waterfowl habitat owners will be essential.

Evaluating habitat and harvest

The desire to maintain hunting traditions cannot be separated from the need to conserve waterfowl populations and the habitat that supports them. Integrating these three branches of waterfowl conservation—managing populations (harvest), conserving habitat, and maintaining hunting participation—presents a complex challenge to resource agencies and conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited. Today, we cannot afford to work in one area without considering the impact on the others as they all affect waterfowl management.

For decades, habitat conservation has appropriately been the foundation of waterfowl management. Without adequate habitat, ducks and geese will not have the resources they need to support their biological needs, and waterfowl enthusiasts will not have places to hunt, photograph, and observe the birds. Although we count habitat gains as primary measures of our conservation accomplishments, the most relevant outcome is whether waterfowl and waterfowl hunters gain as well. The size and distribution of waterfowl populations are the direct result of the status of wetlands and associated uplands that provide feeding habitat for breeding pairs, cover for nesting birds and their broods, and fuel for their epic migrations.

These same habitat conditions also have a direct impact on waterfowl hunters. Hunting opportunity and harvest depend on the number of birds in the fall flight and the distribution of waterfowl during fall and winter. Harvest pressure also affects the availability of habitat for waterfowl throughout the hunting season. Waterfowl managers have long strived to balance the desire for hunting opportunity with the need to ensure adequate habitat and survival of waterfowl. Refuge, food, and water are the primary components of waterfowl management during the nonbreeding season, and the quantity and quality of each directly affects the birds and hunting.

Waterfowl managers also assess the status of duck and goose populations each year. They consider the numbers of birds in this year's population and account for the numbers that are produced, those that die (including harvest), and where the birds go during migration (distribution). Managers have well-established methods of monitoring waterfowl populations and measuring waterfowl harvests. Aerial surveys, banding, and harvest questionnaires are in standard practice to determine waterfowl numbers, distribution, and harvests.

Surveys of breeding habitat are annually conducted in conjunction with efforts to determine duck breeding populations. For the most part, the same calculus used to measure waterfowl populations and harvest is used to assess the status of different habitats. The waterfowl habitat outlook is evaluated by determining acreage currently protected, the rate of habitat loss, how many acres could potentially be restored and managed in the future, and which regions are experiencing net habitat gains or losses.

For the purpose of long-term conservation planning, managers conduct national wetland inventories and landscape-level assessments of land use trends and emerging threats to habitat. This information is used to strategically allocate conservation resources for the acquisition, restoration, and management of remaining waterfowl habitat and to inform public policy that influences landscapes important to waterfowl.

Measuring hunting participation

To predict future waterfowl hunting participation, we must determine how many people are actively hunting today, how many are being recruited, how many are dropping out, and how many hunt less than on an annual basis. Perhaps the best measure of hunting participation is the sale of federal duck stamps. Over time, duck stamp sales have generally followed trends in duck populations and hunting regulations, with peak sales of almost 2.5 million stamps occurring during the 1950s and again in the 1970s. This trend began to break down during the mid-1990s when many duck populations bounced back and hunting regulations were liberalized. While waterfowl hunting participation remains quite strong with an average annual sale of 1.6 million duck stamps during the past decade, stamp sales have not recovered to the levels of the 1970s.

Why not? The answer is fairly straightforward—numbers of hunters are not being replaced at the rate they are being lost. Initial work to determine hunter recruitment, retention, and turnover suggests that over the last decade, less than one-third of waterfowl hunters hunted every year. Another 5 percent were lost each year, and the remainder hunted only sporadically. This means that about two-thirds of the waterfowl hunting population is in a state of flux. Obviously, over the last 15 years or so, rates of hunter recruitment have not been adequate to ensure growth in the base of support experienced in the past.

With declining participation, how can we ensure that our waterfowling traditions are perpetuated? In the long term, there are no quick-fix solutions. One obvious strategy is to increase hunting opportunity and access. Conservation agencies can do this immediately by improving and expanding access to public hunting lands, ensuring that information about hunting opportunities is available and well communicated, and drafting hunting regulations that are easily understood by hunters. It's also important that all wildlife professionals are aware of and appreciate the foundations of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation (see the "Conservation" column in the September/October 2008 issue).

Work by experts in social sciences, while supporting the need for access and opportunity, suggests that new hunters need the long-term support of mentors as well as a broader community of other hunters to nurture and sustain their involvement. Recruiting youth is especially vital to the future of waterfowl hunting. Unfortunately, studies show that as more people have moved from rural to urban areas, our youth have become increasingly disconnected from nature and outdoor traditions like hunting.

On a positive note, research suggests that membership in organizations like Ducks Unlimited can help increase hunter recruitment and retention. Recent studies show that DU members hunt more frequently and have lower turnover than hunters who do not belong to Ducks Unlimited. In many ways, DU serves as a community of likeminded waterfowl enthusiasts, which is vital to recruiting youth and new adult hunters. The bottom line is that it takes a hunter to make a hunter, and therein is an opportunity for DU members to play a crucial mentoring role in advancing waterfowl hunting traditions.

Membership in Ducks Unlimited also provides an association with the broader waterfowl conservation community. Demographic research shows that less than half of currently active waterfowl hunters have been DU members. However, the same analysis reveals that a number of DU members are active supporters of waterfowl conservation but do not hunt themselves. Together, active waterfowl hunters and nonhunting waterfowl enthusiasts represent a conservation community that can provide the foundation for the future.

Finding common ground in waterfowl management

Over time, managers of waterfowl habitat and harvests have become increasingly specialized. The science in support of waterfowl management and associated technical skills has improved as fast as the technology that supports them. State-of-the-art statistical analysis and modeling have become the basis for incorporating biological knowledge into a rigorous process of regulations setting. Habitat managers, working in specific landscapes, have become experts in the ecological nuances of soils, hydrology, and plant and animal responses to their management efforts.

Along with this increased rigor and specialization, however, has come the potential for a lack of coherence in waterfowl management. It's not unlike how prairie duck hunters have different skills and capabilities than their southern counterparts who hunt flooded timber. Despite their specialization, both are completely dependent on the same resource at different times of the year in different habitats. Given a chance to share their hunting experiences, the two would soon find common ground in their passion for waterfowl, wetlands, and hunting traditions.

Similarly, waterfowl managers are finding that they need to continue to focus on the common ground shared across specialties in conserving waterfowl, habitat, and hunting. The challenge is to account for each of these three elements as policies and management plans are implemented. Failure to explicitly acknowledge each will omit key parts of the waterfowl conservation equation.

While great challenges certainly lie ahead for waterfowl conservationists, our history is one of strength. Passionate supporters, dedicated managers, and scientifically driven policies have been the rule. This undoubtedly will continue as we advance waterfowl conservation in the decades ahead.

Dale Humburg is chief biologist at DU national headquarters in Memphis.


DU supports hunting heritage

Partnering with state and federal conservation agencies and the shooting sports industry, Ducks Unlimited has engaged with the conservation community to actively promote North America's hunting heritage and address declining hunting participation and recruitment. Some recent examples include:

  • DU collaborated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Flyway Councils to conduct the 2005 National Duck Hunter Survey, convene a national workshop on the future of waterfowl management, and develop a waterfowl hunter recruitment and retention strategy.
  • DU staff and volunteers have provided technical input and authored portions of a report that led to a 10-year plan entitled Facilitation of Hunting Heritage and Wildlife Conservation.
  • DU staff will participate in the upcoming North American Duck Symposium and Flyway Council meetings where waterfowl hunting participation and recruitment issues will be discussed.
  • DU is represented on the Sporting Conservation Council, which advises the U.S. Secretary of the Interior about wildlife conservation efforts that affect the hunting community.