A New Plan for Waterfowl

The recently revised North American Waterfowl Management Plan will help ensure a bright future for ducks and their habitats
By Jim Ringelman, Ph.D.

It was 1985, and the continental duck population had fallen to its lowest level in two decades. Of even greater concern was a change in the historical relationship between wetlands and breeding ducks. Winter snowfall and spring rainfall yielded a 93 percent increase in May ponds from 1980 to 1985, but duck numbers decreased by 31 percent during the same period. Up until then, pond and duck numbers had moved more or less in lockstep. It appeared that habitat loss had taken its toll, and biologists had new evidence to back the claim.

Research conducted during the 1970s painted a bleak picture for ducks, particularly those breeding on the prairies. An especially worrisome finding came from a study that used miniature radio transmitters—attached to ducks like small backpacks—to track individual nesting hens. The researchers concluded that mallards in North Dakota had only 8 percent nesting success, well below the level required to sustain the population. The situation on the wintering grounds was not much better. Gulf Coast wetlands, bottomland hardwoods, and other vital habitats were also being lost, affecting winter survival and perhaps even breeding success the following spring. It seemed that the ducks were in real trouble.

The duck depression of the early 1980s energized the waterfowl management community in a way not seen since the Dust Bowl days. Something had to be done to address the loss of habitat and restore waterfowl populations. It would take a new way of doing business at a scale never before contemplated by waterfowl biologists, sportsmen, or the public. This was the genesis of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), a totally new model for waterfowl conservation. The year the NAWMP was signed, in 1986, the estimated cost for its full implementation was $1.5 billion, an audacious price tag at that time.

Founded on the desire to rebuild waterfowl populations to 1970s levels, the NAWMP was designed as an international partnership, in which government agencies, nonprofit organizations, private landowners, and others would work together in regional joint ventures. The authors assumed that many partners working together under a joint-venture framework would leverage more resources, and put more habitat on the ground, than those same partners could accomplish working alone. And they were right.

The conservation accomplishments of the past 26 years speak volumes about the effectiveness of the joint-venture model. Since 1986, NAWMP partners have invested more than $4 billion in the protection and restoration of 15.7 million acres of wetlands and associated habitats in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Of equal importance, they have helped shape land use, agricultural programs, and other public policies that are vital to sustaining continental waterfowl populations. These accomplishments were guided by scientific investigations and sophisticated planning tools, which ensured targeted and effective program delivery.

In 2012, the breeding duck index in the traditionally surveyed area of North America was the highest recorded in 57 years. We can credit successive wet years on the prairie breeding grounds for much of this population boom, but should also acknowledge the accomplishments of the NAWMP. Without the wetland restoration and protection efforts implemented by DU and its NAWMP partners, much of the moisture would have flowed into ditches instead of wetland basins, and many more hens would have been forced to nest in small, fragmented patches of habitat. In the end, it's impossible to separate the effects of nature and NAWMP programs on waterfowl populations. And we shouldn't try. Habitat conservation programs complement natural processes, and their effects are intertwined.

The Need for a Revised NAWMP

Bold advancements in waterfowl conservation are usually spurred by crisis. The depletion of waterfowl populations by market hunters prompted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge System. The Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s brought the Duck Stamp Act and the founding of Ducks Unlimited. The duck crisis of the early 1980s led to the NAWMP and new federal conservation programs such as the Wetlands Reserve Program

Today, we are facing another crisis, this time unrelated to waterfowl numbers. Some contemporary concerns, such as accelerating habitat loss, are all too familiar to conservationists. Others, most notably an eroding base of support for conservation programs, are new. Collectively, they motivated stakeholders to come together to reassess the status of waterfowl conservation and confront the challenges of a new age. That reassessment kindled interest in revising the NAWMP. But why was a new plan necessary, when ducks and geese are now doing so well?
NAWMP partners have invested more than $4 billion in the protection and restoration of 15.7 million acres of wetlands and associated habitats in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Savvy investors know that when stocks are flying high and euphoria is in the air, an economic bubble may be about to burst. Waterfowl populations could be in an analogous situation, and many biologists are concerned that the current pace of habitat loss could soon overtake duck populations. Is a "duck bubble" about to pop? Perhaps, and here's why. Record-high commodity prices are accelerating the plowing of grasslands across the Prairie Pothole Region, eliminating nesting cover for upland-nesting ducks such as mallards, pintails, and blue-winged teal. "Geographically isolated" wetlands like prairie potholes have recently lost federal protection in the United States, and future Farm Bills and weak state and provincial wetland policies may be unable to inhibit future wetland drainage. Higher energy consumption has led to new policies that drive increases in domestic energy production. Oil, gas, and coal developments are disrupting boreal, Arctic, coastal, and even prairie ecosystems. Erosion of shorelines, loss of freshwater coastal marshes, and the expansion of oxygen-depleted "dead zones" in estuaries and the Gulf of Mexico continue to degrade crucial wintering habitat. As global demand for food, fiber, and energy increases, so too will these impacts.

Against this backdrop, the waterfowl management community came together and agreed that the time was right to take a fresh look at the challenges ahead and reconsider the way business was being done. Fifteen consultation workshops were held in the United States, Canada, and Mexico so the viewpoints and concerns of various conservation professionals could be heard and discussed. The participants were asked to reconsider the fundamental goals of waterfowl management and suggest measurable objectives to achieve those goals. Input from these workshops was used to formulate three goals for a revised NAWMP: (1) abundant and resilient waterfowl populations to support hunting and other uses without imperiling habitat; (2) wetlands and related habitats sufficient to sustain waterfowl populations at desired levels, while providing places to recreate and ecological services that benefit society; and (3) growing numbers of waterfowl hunters, other conservationists, and citizens who enjoy and actively support waterfowl and wetlands conservation.

A Plan for Ducks and People

Waterfowl population and habitat goals have always been the foundation of the NAWMP, but an explicit goal related to people is new. Why did people emerge as a primary goal in a waterfowl plan? Essentially, it's because we have tended to take people for granted. The revised NAWMP advocates that the needs and desires of people must be clearly understood and explicitly addressed. This important distinction—people as a focus of management actions versus simply a recipient of management outcomes—was intended to motivate the waterfowl management community to expand its understanding of hunters, wildlife watchers, and the public. 
Other Benefits of Waterfowl Conservation 
Many of us enjoy the fruits of waterfowl conservation when ducks set their wings and glide into our decoys. But in an era when much of the public is disconnected from nature, the funding and policies necessary to support waterfowl conservation will not be achieved based solely on the joys of waterfowling, but also on the value of conservation to the quality of life of everyone. That's where so-called "ecological goods and services" come in. In addition to providing habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife, wetlands store floodwater, protect coastlines, purify runoff, and recharge groundwater supplies. By maintaining our focus on waterfowl but marketing the many other benefits that our work provides society, we can achieve a much broader base of support for our conservation mission.


A trend of great concern to NAWMP partners is declining participation in waterfowl hunting. For nearly 80 years, hunters have been leading supporters of waterfowl conservation in North America. In the United States, sales of federal duck stamps have generated more than $750 million, which has been used to purchase or lease more than 6 million acres of wetlands and upland nesting habitat. Hunters have also been effective advocates for policies that conserve habitat and fund conservation programs. In short, ducks have needed hunters as much as hunters have needed ducks. We tended to take this symbiotic relationship for granted until the late 1990s, when annual numbers of waterfowl hunters failed to recover to levels observed during the early 1970s, the last time that duck populations were at similar levels. 

Recruiting and retaining more waterfowl hunters is a high priority of the revised NAWMP. But the authors also determined that broadening the NAWMP's base of support will be essential to the future sustainability of waterfowl conservation programs. A recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study found that more than 13 million people in the United States travel a mile or more from home to view waterfowl. 

That's roughly 10 times the number of waterfowl hunters in the United States. Some of these individuals already support conservation through the purchase of duck stamps and entrance permits, and by supporting DU and other conservation organizations. Increasing conservation support from this large group of other waterfowl "users" is also a high priority of the NAWMP. 

Moreover, in this age of increasing fiscal austerity, we cannot hope to sustain public funding for conservation programs unless the general public is on board. There are simply too many competing interests and worthy causes. But how do we accomplish this with a public that is increasingly disconnected from nature? While not everyone will be as enamored with waterfowl as we are, most people care about water quality, floodwater retention, and other environmental benefits that come from conserving waterfowl habitats (see sidebar). We must ensure that average citizens recognize that an investment in wetlands and waterfowl conservation is also an investment in things they care about. 
NAWCA Vital to Plan's Success 
Shortly after the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) was signed in 1986, the plan's backers set out to secure funding to support their ambitious conservation agenda. The search led to the halls of Congress, where sympathetic lawmakers were briefed about the duck crisis. The lobbying paid off with the passage of the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), which was signed into law in 1989.


NAWCA provided much of the seed money that helped kick-start many early NAWMP projects. Building on the partnership model established by the NAWMP, this visionary legislation required at least one dollar in nonfederal matching funds for every federal dollar awarded through NAWCA grants. Over the years, DU and other NAWMP partners have far exceeded this requirement, offering more than three dollars in matching funds for every NAWCA dollar contributed by the federal government. Combined federal and nonfederal funding under NAWCA now totals over $4 billion, which has resulted in the protection and restoration of 15.7 million acres of wetlands and associated wildlife habitats across this continent.

Another big idea embodied in NAWCA was a desire to support conservation projects throughout North America, recognizing the vital importance of the prairie, boreal forest, and Arctic regions of Canada as well as key migration and wintering habitats in the United States and Mexico. And while sending money to foreign countries may have been standard operating procedure for some departments of government, it was a radical departure for conservation agencies. These farsighted investments have paid off many times over for U.S. hunters since NAWCA began this practice. 

As it was in 1986, the success of the 2012 NAWMP hinges on support from NAWCA, which is currently being debated by Congress. For more information on how you can make your voice heard in support of NAWCA reauthorization, visit www.ducks.org/publicpolicy.

The revised NAWMP also calls for greater cooperation among the plan's many partners to more efficiently and effectively manage waterfowl populations and conserve key habitats across this continent. "Human dimensions research" will be used to bring scientific rigor to our management decisions related to people, just as trained waterfowl biologists have used science to inform waterfowl population and habitat management decisions for decades. And leaders of the waterfowl management community will work together to embrace common objectives, coordinate management actions, and evaluate our collective progress. 

The NAWMP has achieved great things during the past 26 years, conserving nearly 16 million acres of waterfowl habitat across this continent. While there is much to celebrate, many challenges remain. The world is fundamentally different today than it was when the plan was conceived in the early 1980s. The revised NAWMP reaffirms a commitment to waterfowl conservation in all its dimensions and sets a course to meet future challenges by becoming more adaptable, more efficient, and more relevant. 

The work of countless DU supporters and other conservationists over the past century has positioned the waterfowl conservation community to evolve and continue to succeed. North America has been endowed with the greatest diversity and abundance of waterfowl on earth. DU and its NAWMP partners will continue to work together to steward and secure this priceless resource for current and future generations. 


Dr. Jim Ringelman, DU's director of conservation programs for the Dakotas and Montana, coordinated the revision of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

Fowl Fact: FULL REPORT 
To read the 2012 North American Waterfowl Management Plan document in its entirety, visit the DU website at www.ducks.org/NAWMP2012