Conservation: Ducks in a Crowded World

Sustaining healthy waterfowl numbers will be a great challenge as the earth's human population grows
—By Michael G. Anderson, Ph.D. 

This past July, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service estimated that 45.6 million breeding ducks had settled in the traditionally surveyed area of the United States and Canada, the largest estimate recorded since 1955. After 18 years of mostly wet weather across the Prairie Pothole Region, millions of acres of upland nesting cover provided by the Conservation Reserve Program in the United States, 25 years of successful conservation partnerships delivered by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in both countries, prudent harvest management, and some simple good fortune, most of this continent's waterfowl were doing remarkably well. 

Then, on Halloween, the United Nations projected that for the first time the number of people currently living on earth had reached 7 billion. When I was an undergraduate in college not that long ago, the earth's human population was half that size and analysts were already concerned about its impacts on limited resources. What does this have to do with ducks? The answer is that the earth's rapidly growing human population will pose an enormous challenge to waterfowl and the people who enjoy them. Paradoxically, at a time when we celebrate the renewed abundance of waterfowl, we also face profound long-term challenges to sustaining them.

In the conservation business we must think long term. Sustainability is key. Over the past five decades conservationists have learned much about what landscape features and conditions are required to sustain waterfowl populations—wetlands of various types for food and shelter, thick grass or flooded cattails for nesting cover, adequate food resources and sanctuary on migration and wintering areas, and more. We have also learned that the most productive wetlands for breeding waterfowl are located in areas with fertile underlying soils and a moderate climate, such as the prairie potholes of the Dakotas and southern Canada. On migration and wintering areas, historical floodplain wetlands, coastal marshes, and seasonally flooded agricultural fields are vital to sustaining waterfowl populations at healthy levels. These habitats are also under pressure from development.

As the earth's human population continues to soar in the years ahead, sustainability will be vital to our future as well. Seven billion is a lot of mouths to feed. At a current growth rate of about 1.3 percent (estimates for this vary) we add 250,000 people to the earth's population every single day; that's roughly a new New York City every month. Most of this growth is occurring in Africa and Asia. The number of people in North America is growing too, but at a more modest rate.   

Arable land is already in short supply worldwide, and every day the earth's capacity to grow crops is degraded by soil erosion, desertification, depletion of aquifers, and salinization, largely related to unsustainable agricultural practices. We also rely on the earth's finite agricultural land base to produce much of the fiber that clothes us as well as biofuels to help power our cars and industries.  

There is nothing more important to sustaining duck populations than keeping prairie wetland basins intact so they can recharge whenever it gets wet. The spectacular duck populations of 2011 offer ample proof of this assertion.

In today's interconnected world, local events can have global impacts that affect all of us wherever we live. The same is also true of the habitats that support waterfowl. The competition on the landscape between habitat and food production is already heating up. And traditional conservation "fixes" like buying and managing land exclusively for wildlife will not be enough. It's a matter of scale, affordability, and social values. Conserving habitat may lose public support in the future if this work is seen as being in direct competition with the economy and human well-being.

How can we find socially acceptable ways to sustain waterfowl and their habitats in the world's confined breadbasket? First, we must find more common ground. Raising awareness of the many ecological services that wetlands and adjacent grasslands provide for society should build support for public policies that conserve these important waterfowl habitats. Interconnected wetlands help remove excess nutrients from watersheds, moderate the extent and timing of runoff that contributes to downstream flooding, help recharge local aquifers, and in some situations contribute to the capture and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide. All of these wetland functions are important to people and communities as well as wildlife and the environment. Moreover, soil erosion can be reduced and fertility slowly enhanced by better management of tillage and crop residue. On intensively farmed prairie landscapes, cultivating winter cereals that efficiently use limited soil moisture will also provide nesting cover for breeding pintails and other dabbling ducks. In some areas of the pothole country, grass-based agriculture, such as cattle grazing and forage production, may be more sustainable in terms of energy input and water use than is crop production. Waterfowl conservationists and ranchers have long had overlapping interests that we should continue to steward.

If public-sector investments in conservation are diminished by periodic spending cuts, we must also work to ensure that sufficient policy "backstops" are in place to conserve critical habitat when development pressures increase. Strengthening wetland protections formerly provided by the Clean Water Act in the United States, sustaining conservation provisions in U.S. and Canadian agricultural policies, and nurturing stronger provincial wetland policies in Canada are high priorities. There is nothing more important for sustaining duck populations than keeping prairie wetland basins intact so they can recharge whenever it gets wet. The spectacular duck populations of 2011 offer ample proof of this assertion.  

A world with more than 7 billion people might still sustain healthy numbers of waterfowl in North America, but it won't be easy. Let us rededicate ourselves to the work required to achieve truly sustainable conditions for this continent's waterfowl as we celebrate their recent abundance and mark with some trepidation the recent arrival of our 7-billionth relative.  


Dr. Mike Anderson is senior conservation advisor at DU Canada national headquarters at Oak Hammock Marsh.
Declining Species Remain Cause for Concern In contrast to all the good news in 2011, three species of ducks—lesser and greater scaup and American wigeon—remained well below their long-term population averages in the traditional survey area. Note too that after a couple of decades of gradual decline, the long-term averages for these species have been dropping as well. Scaup and wigeon have shown particularly sharp declines in Canada's western boreal forest and Prairie Pothole Region. Declines among wigeon have been partially offset by significant population increases in Alaska.  
To help address the conservation needs of waterfowl in the western boreal forest, DU, the Pew Charitable Trusts, and other partners are ramping up efforts to identify and protect the region's best waterfowl breeding habitats, work with resource extraction industries to develop best practices to minimize impacts on waterfowl habitat across this vast region, and conduct research to better understand the impacts of changing land use on waterfowl and boreal wetlands.