2012 Waterfowl Forecast

Another large fall flight is expected after waterfowl break more records on the breeding grounds
By Matt Young

Conserving habitat to support healthy waterfowl populations has been Ducks Unlimited's mission from the beginning, and this "singleness of purpose" continues to inspire today's DU supporters in everything they do for conservation. In recent years, the ducks have once again shown that DU's founders were right in their convictions. Given sufficient habitat on their breeding grounds, especially in the prairie "Duck Factory," North America's waterfowl are capable of impressive population growth when weather conditions are favorable. 

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the 2012 estimate of breeding ducks in the traditional survey area was 48.6 million birds, a 7 percent increase from last year's record total and the largest estimate since annual surveys began in 1955. In especially good news for waterfowlers, mallards were up 15 percent—from 9.2 million birds in 2011 to 10.6 million this year. Only twice, in 1958 and 1999, have more mallards been recorded during the May survey. Populations of all other major duck species, except northern pintails, were either above or statistically similar to 2011 estimates. 
CORRECTION Many habitat reports in this story were provided by DU biologists in the field. In the printed edition, two sources for this information were incorrectly cited. A report attributed to Michael Hill was provided by DU Canada biologist Kelly Rempel and a report attributed to Scott Muir was provided by DU Canada biologist Erling Armson. We deeply regret these errors.

"Last year's unprecedented wetland conditions on the prairies and record duck population set the stage for this year's impressive survey results," says DU Chief Scientist Dale Humburg. "It's certainly encouraging to see many ducks at or near historic highs, but not all the news in this year's survey was good. American wigeon and pintails remained below their long-term averages, and we remain concerned about the loss of habitat that supports waterfowl populations."  

The USFWS reports that this year's estimate of 5.5 million May ponds declined 32 percent from last year's estimate of 8.1 million ponds.

However, the total May pond count, which is used by waterfowl managers as a measure for wetland abundance on the prairies, remained 9 percent above the long-term average. 

"In light of large waterfowl populations and carryover habitat from 2011, we should see another strong fall flight this year," Humburg says. "It's important to remember, however, that large waterfowl populations don't necessarily guarantee great hunting everywhere in the fall. Many variables can influence hunting success more than the size of the fall flight. For example, large areas of the nation are experiencing drought, which could affect the availability of food and wetland habitat for waterfowl. Other unusual weather events, like unseasonably mild temperatures and below-average snowfall, could also affect the timing of the migration and the distribution of waterfowl this season."

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 Pacific Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the western United States and Canada, with the majority of the flyway's ducks and geese coming from Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Alaska, and other western states. In 2012, an estimated 4.8 million breeding ducks were surveyed across the grasslands and parklands of Alberta—an 11 percent increase from the 2011 estimate and 14 percent above the long-term average. Populations of all major duck species except pintails were either above or similar to last year's estimates in this region. 

As in other parts of prairie Canada, much of Alberta received beneficial precipitation after May waterfowl surveys were completed.

"Precipitation totals in June and July were normal to well above normal across most of the province. This maintained water levels and even improved wetland conditions in some areas," says DU Canada biologist Ian McFarlane. "Good nesting cover was present throughout the province, and pastures were in excellent condition. June rains delayed haying somewhat and also improved yields. Our field staff have observed good numbers of broods of all duck species throughout the province. Overall, we anticipate average or slightly above-average waterfowl production in this province." 

Large numbers of Pacific Flyway waterfowl are also raised in the western boreal forest of northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. An estimated 8.8 million breeding ducks were surveyed in this region—a 24 percent increase from the previous year's estimate. Farther north, in Alaska and the Yukon, duck numbers were up 19 percent, reaching a total of almost 4.5 million breeding birds. This estimate included almost 1.2 million breeding pintails, a 58 percent increase from the previous year's estimate. Habitat conditions were mixed this year across the northern "bush" country. While some areas of the western boreal forest were drier than average, an early spring thaw ensured that many wetlands were ice free when waterfowl returned, encouraging breeding pairs to settle and begin nesting. 
In the western United States, habitat conditions were highly variable for breeding waterfowl. In California, the abundance of both mallards and total ducks was similar to last year and the long-term average, and typical waterfowl production is expected in areas with suitable wetland habitat. In Washington and Oregon, both total ducks and mallards were up, and wetland conditions were generally good for breeding waterfowl. Elsewhere in the Intermountain West, however, severe drought has taken a toll on wetlands in many areas, and poor waterfowl production is expected across much of this region. 

The outlook for Pacific Flyway goose populations is positive. The USFWS reports that spring weather and habitat conditions were generally favorable for breeding geese in the western Arctic, with the exception of Alaska's Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, where a late thaw and spring flooding adversely affected breeding efforts. Surveys indicate that most Pacific Flyway goose populations should be average or similar to last year.

Central Flyway 

The majority of Central Flyway waterfowl are raised on the prairies of the United States and Canada, as well as in the western boreal forest and the Arctic. Saskatchewan consistently ranks at the top of North America's most important waterfowl breeding areas, and this year was no exception. More than 11.3 million breeding ducks were surveyed across the vast grasslands and parklands of this province—similar to the 2011 estimate and 50 percent above the long-term average. As in Alberta, frequent precipitation maintained or improved wetland conditions across much of this province during late spring and early summer. 

"Southern Saskatchewan experienced several rounds of severe thunderstorms in June. Many of these storms produced locally heavy rainfall, which flooded fields and recharged temporary wetlands, which are very important to breeding waterfowl," reports DU Canada biologist Kelly Rempel. "As summer progressed, our field staff observed many broods of all duck species, and we continued to see young broods well into July, which suggested a strong renesting effort had occurred. Overall, we anticipate this will be another good year for waterfowl production in Saskatchewan."  

Drier weather prevailed across North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana, where May pond numbers declined by almost 50 percent from the previous year. An estimated 14.9 million breeding ducks were surveyed in these states in 2012—similar to last year's population of 15.7 million birds. In the eastern Dakotas, total breeding ducks were 162 percent above the long-term average, while in the western Dakotas and Montana total duck numbers were 49 percent above the long-term average.

Dr. Jim Ringelman, director of conservation programs at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota, anticipates that duck production will be slightly better than average in the Great Plains states this year. "In central North Dakota, semipermanent wetlands and even some seasonal wetlands held up well into the summer," Ringelman says. "Drier conditions prevailed in much of South Dakota and eastern Montana. As evidenced by the survey results, the duck population has built up in this region, and we have lots of birds returning to the prairies. Even though it was drier this year, the sheer numbers of birds and sufficient carryover water from last year should result in a good fall flight from the U.S. prairies." 

The outlook for Central Flyway goose populations is mixed. The USFWS reports that spring weather and habitat conditions were generally favorable for Arctic-nesting Canada geese, Ross's geese, and midcontinent white-fronted geese, and populations of these birds should be similar to or larger than last year's. Breeding success among midcontinent lesser snow geese, however, appears to have been below average due to a late spring thaw and flooding on their breeding grounds. As a result, this year's fall flight of lesser snows will likely include a lower proportion of juvenile birds. 

Mississippi Flyway

The Mississippi Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the Prairie Pothole Region, as well as from Ontario, the Great Lakes states, and western boreal forest. In southern Manitoba, a dry spring resulted in a 39 percent decline in May ponds compared to last year's estimates. Total breeding duck numbers, however, were essentially unchanged in this region. In addition, the same wet weather pattern that soaked Alberta and Saskatchewan in June also brought much-needed precipitation to southern Manitoba. 

"Frequent rain events improved wetland conditions in the southwest pothole country, which had been dry earlier in the spring, and even caused localized flooding along some watercourses. These conditions supported a strong waterfowl breeding effort," reports DU Canada biologist Mark Francis. "Puddle duck broods appeared to be particularly abundant this summer, and brood sizes were large on average, likely because of favorable weather conditions. In addition, we continued to see young broods well into July, which indicates that later-nesting species such as blue-winged teal and gadwalls had good nesting success, as well as renesting mallards and other early nesters." 
Drier weather prevailed in neighboring Ontario, but wetland habitat was sufficient to support breeding waterfowl across much of this province. 

"Large numbers of breeding pairs settled in Ontario this year, which was confirmed by the USFWS-CWS survey," reports DU Canada biologist Erling Armson. "Summer temperatures were average, while precipitation was below average. As a result, most seasonal and semipermanent wetlands went dry or were at relatively low levels by late July. Fortunately, we have many permanent wetlands with more stable water levels in this province, and brood-rearing habitats remained in good shape except in southwestern Ontario, which had particularly dry conditions. Overall, we anticipate typical waterfowl production and a good fall flight." 

Mallards and other waterfowl raised in the Great Lakes states (Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin) make a large contribution to the harvest in the eastern Mississippi Flyway and the mid-Atlantic region. In 2012, an estimated 860,000 mallards were surveyed in the Great Lakes states, similar to the previous year's estimate and the long-term average. While much of the Great Lakes region was drier than average when waterfowl returned this spring, wetland conditions improved following late spring rains, benefiting breeding waterfowl. 

The outlook for Mississippi Flyway goose populations is generally positive. Among northern-nesting Canada geese, the USFWS reports that the Mississippi Valley, Eastern Prairie, and Southern James Bay populations should have fall flights similar to last year's. Above-average production was observed among midcontinent white-fronted and Ross's geese, and populations of these geese remain healthy. Breeding success among lesser snow geese, however, was likely below average this year, so fewer juvenile birds are expected in this year's fall flight.      

Atlantic Flyway

The majority of Atlantic Flyway waterfowl are raised in the eastern United States and Canada, although this flyway also receives large numbers of dabbling ducks and divers from the prairies and Great Lakes states. In 2012, the total breeding duck population estimate for the six most abundant species in the eastern survey area (covering eastern Ontario, Québec, Atlantic Canada, Maine, and northern New York) was 2.2 million birds. In encouraging news for waterfowlers, black duck numbers were up 11 percent from the previous year's estimate and were similar to the long-term (1990−2012) average. Populations of mallards, ring-necked ducks, and green-winged teal were statistically similar to last year's estimate and the long-term average. 

DU Canada biologist Nic McLellan reports that this appears to have been a good year for waterfowl production in Atlantic Canada (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island), a key breeding area for black ducks and many other waterfowl. "Wetland habitat was slightly less abundant on the landscape this summer because of dry weather, but this shouldn't limit waterfowl breeding success. DU-managed wetlands had stable water levels and provided good habitat throughout the brood-rearing period. Spring and summer weather was ideal for breeding waterfowl. In addition, many broods were observed, with a larger average brood size compared to last year." 

The outlook for Atlantic Flyway goose populations is also good. Based on spring weather and habitat conditions on northern breeding areas, average production was expected for Atlantic Population Canada geese and brant, and fall populations of these geese should be similar to last year's. Fair production was also reported among greater snow geese, which should have another large fall flight.  

Looking Ahead 

In 2012, North America's waterfowl returned to their breeding grounds in numbers that would have made DU's founders proud. Despite this year's impressive survey results, however, the future of this continent's waterfowl is far from secure. Rising commodity prices, diminished wetland protections, and budget cuts to conservation programs could result in widespread habitat loss on the prairies and in other high-priority conservation areas.

"DU's founders would be the first to warn us to remain vigilant and keep our shoulders to the wheel in conserving vital waterfowl habitat across this continent," says DU CEO Dale Hall. "Conservation is indeed at a crossroads. The Farm Bill and North American Wetlands Conservation Act are up for renewal by Congress this year, and we are fighting to increase our investment in wetlands conservation by raising the price of the federal duck stamp. Like generations of DU supporters before us, we must not waver in our support for conservation and continue to work together to fulfill our founders' vision. Otherwise, large waterfowl populations like we've seen on the breeding grounds in recent years could become only a memory."
Liberal Hunting Regulations Stay in Place Waterfowl hunting regulations are drafted each year by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in consultation with the four flyway councils. With healthy mallard populations in each survey region and an above-average May pond count on the prairies, waterfowl managers have recommended liberal hunting season frameworks in every flyway this year. Check with the appropriate state or provincial wildlife agency for season dates, daily bag limits, and other regulations where you plan to hunt.

Hunting Activity and Harvest Remain High 

As in previous years, waterfowl harvests and hunting activity (measured by total days hunted) remained at high levels during the 2011−2012 waterfowl season. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) estimates that last season more than 1.1 million waterfowl hunters bagged over 15.9 million ducks and 2.9 million geese in the United States. The previous season, a similar number of hunters harvested almost 14.9 million ducks and nearly 3.2 million geese. 

Mallards were once again the most commonly taken waterfowl species, followed by gadwalls, Canada geese, green-winged teal, wood ducks, and blue-winged/cinnamon teal. U.S. duck hunters spent an estimated 7 million days afield in pursuit of ducks during the 2011−2012 waterfowl season and bagged more than 16 birds per hunter. Goose hunters spent more than 3.6 million days afield in pursuit of geese last season and bagged about five birds per hunter. 
INFORMATION CENTER For the latest reports on upcoming waterfowl hunting seasons, populations, and harvests, visit Flyways.US, a collaborative venture by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Migratory Bird Management, the flyway councils, and state wildlife agencies.