2011 Waterfowl Forecast

Duck populations soared to record highs this spring 
By Matt Young

If you are a waterfowler, it's a fact of life that duck populations seldom remain at high levels for more than a few years at a time. Instead, waterfowl numbers fluctuate in concert with highly variable weather and habitat conditions on the breeding grounds, especially in the Prairie Pothole Region, where more than half of North America's ducks are raised. If you hunt long enough, you will experience these highs and lows firsthand, both in terms of hunting opportunities and the number of ducks you see from the blind. 

In recent years, waterfowl numbers have once again been on the upswing, and in 2011 duck populations soared to record highs, thanks to exceptional wetland conditions across the prairies. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) reports that the May pond count on the prairies increased 22 percent from 6.7 million ponds in 2010 to 8.1 million ponds this spring. 

The 2011 breeding population estimate for the 10 most common duck species in the traditional survey area was 45.6 million birds—an 11 percent increase from the previous year's estimate and the largest total estimate since surveys began in 1955. Mallards had a breeding population of 9.2 million birds—up 9 percent from last year and the largest estimate since 2000. In more good news for waterfowl hunters, blue-winged teal, redheads, and shovelers reached record highs this spring. In addition, pintails had a breeding population of 4.4 million birds, a 26 percent increase from the previous year and the first time this population has surpassed 4 million birds since 1980. Populations of all other duck species in the traditional survey area were statistically similar to last year. Only two species—scaup and American wigeon—were below their long-term averages. 

While this year's waterfowl survey results are certainly cause for celebration, DU Chief Scientist Dale Humburg cautions that large waterfowl breeding populations don't necessarily guarantee great hunting everywhere in the fall. "I'm optimistic about the upcoming waterfowl season, but many variables can impact hunting success," Humburg says. 

"For example, some regions are experiencing severe drought, while other areas have suffered impacts from record flooding. These and other extreme weather events could have dramatic effects on the migration and the distribution of waterfowl this fall and winter, which could in turn affect hunting success in some parts of the country."

May pond counts and waterfowl breeding population estimates are compiled during extensive air and ground surveys conducted by the USFWS, Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), state and provincial wildlife agencies, and other partners. These surveys are essential to managing waterfowl populations and setting annual hunting regulations. The following report provides an overview of the status of habitat conditions and waterfowl populations across key breeding areas in the United States and Canada. 

Pacific Flyway

The majority of Pacific Flyway waterfowl are raised on the prairies of the United States and Canada, as well as in Alaska, northwestern Canada, and other western states. Alberta is a vital breeding area for continental waterfowl populations, but is especially important to Pacific Flyway waterfowl. In 2011, an estimated 4.3 million breeding ducks were surveyed across the Prairie Pothole Region of this province. This year's breeding duck population in southern Alberta was up 66 percent from last year and was similar to the long-term average. Several species posted significant increases, including pintails (+171 percent), green-winged teal (+112 percent), redheads (+85 percent), scaup (+80 percent), American wigeon (+61 percent), blue-winged teal (+60 percent), and mallards (+57 percent).  

DU Canada biologist Ian McFarlane reports that habitat conditions were excellent for breeding waterfowl across the grasslands of southern Alberta, a highly productive breeding area for pintails, mallards, and many other ducks when wetland conditions are favorable. In addition, heavy rainfall in late May and June recharged wetland basins across much of Alberta's aspen parkland region. "Upland nesting habitat was in good to excellent condition across Alberta's agricultural zone, and wet weather delayed haying activity, which likely enhanced nesting success," McFarlane says. "Our field staff observed increasing numbers of duck broods as the season progressed, and Canada goose goslings were almost fully feathered by mid-July. Overall, the waterfowl production forecast is above average on the prairie and average in the aspen parkland." 

When the prairies are dry, as they often are, many breeding ducks simply bypass the parched pothole country and settle farther north in the boreal forest and Arctic, where wetland conditions are less variable. The opposite occurs when the prairies are wet, as this year's waterfowl surveys likely indicated. Across central and northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories, total breeding ducks decreased 19 percent in 2011. Fewer waterfowl were also surveyed in Alaska and the Yukon Territory, where duck numbers were down by roughly one-third from the previous year's estimate. Nevertheless, these northern survey areas were hardly devoid of waterfowl, collectively supporting almost 11 million breeding ducks, or nearly one-quarter of the total population in the traditional survey area. 

Habitat conditions were excellent for breeding waterfowl across the grasslands of southern Alberta, a highly productive breeding area for pintails, mallards, and many other ducks.

"Wetland conditions were generally good for breeding waterfowl in the Yukon," reports DU Canada biologist Brent Friedt. "Ponds were full this spring, and runoff was high in late May from snow melt. In the Northwest Territories, spring was generally dry. Yellowknife received lower-than-normal precipitation in May and June, while precipitation in the Norman Wells area was normal. Northern Alberta remained relatively dry, but because of the more permanent nature of boreal wetlands, there was still habitat available to breeding ducks. In fact, many broods were reported throughout the area this summer, so fair to average production is likely despite the dry conditions."

Far to the south, in the western contiguous United States, waterfowl habitat conditions have improved in many areas. An estimated 559,000 ducks—including 315,000 mallards—were surveyed in California this spring, and estimates of both total ducks and mallards were statistically similar to those of the previous year and the long-term average. Waterfowl numbers varied across Washington and Oregon, but wetland conditions were generally favorable for breeding ducks and geese in these states. 

The goose production outlook in the Pacific Flyway is mixed. Surveys conducted in Alaska and the western Canadian Arctic suggest that fall populations of most geese should be average or similar to last year's. Notable exceptions include white-fronted geese, which should have a large fall flight in 2011, and cackling geese, which are expected to have a smaller fall flight than last year's. 

Central Flyway

The Central Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the prairies, with the majority of ducks coming from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Most of this flyway's geese, as well as most of its scaup, wigeon, and green-winged teal, are raised in the western boreal forest and Arctic. 

Saskatchewan consistently ranks at the top of North America's most important waterfowl breeding areas. In 2011, an estimated 10.7 million breeding ducks were surveyed across this province's vast prairie and parkland regions—a 56 percent increase from the previous year's estimate. Pintails posted the most impressive increase (+233 percent), followed by shovelers (+88 percent), blue-winged teal (+83 percent), canvasbacks (+74 percent), wigeon (+46 percent), scaup (+41 percent), redheads (+38 percent), and mallards (+23 percent). In fact, southern Saskatchewan alone supported roughly one-fifth of the mallards; one-quarter of the pintails and blue-winged teal; one-third of the gadwalls, redheads, and shovelers; and half of the canvasbacks in the entire traditional survey area. 

DU Canada biologist Dr. Michael Hill reports that exceptionally wet weather created excellent habitat conditions for breeding waterfowl across much of southern Saskatchewan, including in key waterfowl production areas like the Missouri Coteau and Allan Hills. "The abundance of water provided good habitat for nesting pairs, and our field staff have seen large numbers of broods across the province," Hill says. "We expect waterfowl production to be good to excellent this year in southern Saskatchewan."

In the north-central United States, runoff from a heavy snowpack and frequent spring rains also created excellent wetland conditions. A record 15.7 million breeding ducks were surveyed on the U.S. prairies—more than one-third of the total in the traditional survey area. "The Great Plains states experienced another impressively wet year in 2011, and ducks responded accordingly," reports DU biologist Dr. Johann Walker. "In the eastern Dakotas, the pond count was 115 percent above the long-term average, and the breeding duck population was 172 percent above the long-term average.Initial reports from field crews indicate that nesting effort and nesting success were most likely above average as well. Recent trends in breeding duck populations in the Prairie Pothole Region continue to reinforce the idea that existing habitat is sufficient to produce abundant ducks under favorable conditions. Nevertheless, since most ducks are produced on unprotected agricultural lands, and escalating losses of key wetland and grassland habitat are expected as global demand for food and energy increases, continued conservation efforts by DU and its partners will be required to sustain duck populations for the long term in this important waterfowl region."  

The goose production outlook in the Central Flyway is mixed. Surveys of northern breeding areas indicate that fall populations of white-fronted geese and large subspecies of Canada geese should be up this year. Among smaller subspecies of Canada geese, average production was reported among the Tall Grass Prairie Population, while the Short Grass Prairie Population appears to have experienced slightly-below-average production. Midcontinent light geese, which include both lesser snow geese and growing numbers of Ross's geese, are expected to have an average fall flight this year with typical numbers of juvenile birds in the population.    
The 2010-2011 Waterfowl Season in Review Waterfowl harvests and hunting activity (measured by total days hunted) remained at high levels last year. During the 2010−2011 waterfowl season, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 1.1 million waterfowl hunters bagged 14.9 million ducks in the United States. The previous season, approximately the same number of hunters harvested 13.1 million ducks. Mallards were once again the most commonly taken duck species, followed by green-winged teal, gadwalls, blue-winged/cinnamon teal, and wood ducks (in that order). Last year's goose harvest of 3.2 million birds was essentially unchanged from the previous year's harvest. U.S. hunters spent an estimated 6.6 million days afield in pursuit of ducks during the 2010−2011 waterfowl season, also roughly the same as the previous season. 

Mississippi Flyway

The majority of Mississippi Flyway waterfowl are raised on the prairies of the United States and Canada, as well as in Ontario, the Great Lakes states, and western boreal forest. In southern Manitoba, total duck numbers were up 41 percent in 2011 and were similar to the long-term average. Populations of several duck species—including mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal, and canvasbacks—were up significantly in the region this spring.

DU Canada biologist Mark Francis reports that waterfowl production is expected to be above average this year in southern Manitoba. "Record spring flooding filled wetlands on key breeding areas, and an unprecedented 3 million acres of cropland were left unseeded. In addition, wet weather significantly delayed haying operations this year, which likely benefited upland-nesting species. With water everywhere across southern Manitoba, there was a strong renesting effort, and brood survival was also expected to be high," Francis says. 

The outlook for waterfowl production is also bright in neighboring Ontario, where frequent spring rains recharged wetlands across the province. "Assessments by the USFWS and CWS indicate that waterfowl breeding habitats were in much better condition this year than they were in 2010," says DU Canada biologist Erling Armson. "Field reports indicate that many waterfowl species had a good initial breeding effort, with some typical renesting due to predation and nest flooding. Water levels remained relatively high well into July, so broods were widely distributed across the wetland base. Overall, waterfowl production is expected to be above average this year in Ontario."
A record 15.7 million breeding ducks were surveyed on the U.S. prairies—more than one-third of the total in the traditional survey area.

Mallards and other ducks raised in the Great Lakes states contribute to waterfowl harvests in the eastern Mississippi Flyway as well as the Atlantic Flyway. Spring wetland conditions were good to excellent in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and mallard populations in these states were similar to 2010 estimates and their long-term averages. Wetland conditions were variable this spring in Michigan, and mallard numbers declined from the previous year's estimate as well as the long-term average. 

The goose production outlook in the Mississippi Flyway is mixed. Among Canada geese, the Mississippi Valley and Eastern Prairie populations are expected to have smaller-than-average fall flights this year, while the Southern James Bay Population should have a fall flight larger than last year's. Good production was reported among midcontinent white-fronted geese, and this population is expected to have a larger fall flight this year. Lesser snow and Ross's geese should have an average fall flight in 2011. 

Atlantic Flyway

The majority of Atlantic Flyway waterfowl are raised in the eastern United States and Canada, with the exception of certain species such as canvasbacks and redheads, which are largely produced on the prairies. In the eastern survey area (eastern Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, Maine, and northern New York), populations of most duck species—including mallards, green-winged teal, and ring-necked ducks—were statistically similar to last year's estimates and their long-term averages. Black duck numbers, however, were 13 percent below the long-term average in this region. 

DU Canada biologist Adam Campbell reports that cold, wet weather persisted in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island well into the summer, which may have had an adverse effect on early-breeding waterfowl. "Overall, habitat conditions are good in Atlantic Canada, but geese and early-breeding ducks were challenged by cold and rainy conditions," Campbell says. "Brood sizes initially appeared to be smaller than average. This may have been due to relentless rain and cold temperatures in June. While this may not have been a great recruitment year for early nesters, warmer summer temperatures likely benefited ducks that initiated breeding late." 

The outlook for Atlantic Flyway goose populations is generally positive. Average production was reported among Atlantic Population Canada geese and brant, and fall populations of these birds should be similar to last year's. Good production was reported among greater snow geese, which should have an above-average fall flight.  
Liberal Regulations Remain in Place With excellent wetland conditions on the prairies and healthy mallard populations in each survey region, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has once again recommended liberal hunting regulations for the upcoming waterfowl season. Check with the appropriate state or provincial wildlife agency for season dates, daily bag limits, shooting times, and other regulations where you plan to hunt.

Looking Ahead

In 2011, exceptionally wet weather and abundant waterfowl habitat on the prairies helped total duck numbers in the traditional survey area reach the highest level since waterfowl surveys began in 1955. While this is great news for duck hunters, DU CEO Dale Hall cautions that waterfowl and their habitats still face an uncertain future. "As a waterfowler, I'm encouraged by this year's population survey results. However, unprecedented water conditions are only part of the story. Water without nesting cover does little to improve the future of waterfowl," Hall says. "As good as the news is this year, waterfowl and prairie habitats continue to face significant long-term threats. Grassland habitat is under siege on many fronts and is being lost at alarming rates. Key public policies such as the Farm Bill and North American Wetlands Conservation Act must continue to support conservation efforts in order for the good news to carry into the future. That's our challenge in years to come."