Saving the Sprig

Bringing back the pintail to its former abundance

By Matt Young

Waterfowlers who began hunting after 1980 may find it hard to believe that the pintail was once second only to the mallard as North America’s most common duck. In fact, pintails may have even outnumbered mallards at times in the Pacific Flyway. But older duck hunters can remember when these sleek and beautiful birds filled the skies in amazing numbers and daily limits of as many as 10 drake pintails per hunter came easily. For these veteran waterfowlers, witnessing the steady decline of pintails on their favorite hunting areas has been nothing short of heartbreaking.

Nowhere has the plight of the pintail been more apparent than in California, where the majority of the Pacific Flyway population gathers in winter. During the 1970s—the most recent era in which pintail populations were considered healthy—between 3 million and 4 million of these birds wintered in the state’s vast Central Valley, and California duck hunters harvested an average of more than 600,000 pintails a year. In recent years, pintail numbers in the Central Valley have dwindled to only about 1 million birds, and last season, hunters bagged slightly less than 100,000 pintails out of a total statewide duck harvest of more than 1.4 million birds.

Similar declines in pintail numbers and harvests have also occurred in other traditional pintail strongholds such as Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas. To help reverse the long-term decline of the pintail, Ducks Unlimited has launched an international conservation initiative dedicated to restoring the species to its former abundance. This initiative, involving many conservation partners across North America, focuses on protecting and restoring vital pintail breeding habitats on the prairies of the United States and Canada, as well as on key migration and wintering areas in the United States and Mexico.

What Happened to Pintails?

When wet weather returned to the Prairie Pothole Region in the mid-1990s after more than a decade of severe drought, waterfowlers had high hopes the pintail would make a long-awaited comeback. While populations of mallards and most other duck species soared to the highest levels since the 1950s, pintails languished well below their long-term average. In 2005, the abundance of breeding pintails in the traditional survey area increased 17 percent from 2.2 million birds in 2004 to 2.6 million, but the population remained well below the management goal of 5.4 million birds embraced by DU’s International Conservation Plan and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

A closer look at the data reveals the pintail decline hasn’t been uniform across the bird’s breeding range. In fact, pintail numbers in northern Canada and Alaska have remained relatively stable during the past 50 years. Rather, the bulk of the shortfall has occurred in the heart of the pintail’s breeding range on the grasslands of southern Canada. An analysis of pintail population data and land-use trends conducted by Ducks Unlimited and Montana State University found that since 1961 breeding pintail numbers have declined mainly in areas where agricultural activity has intensified.

Breeding pintails arrive on the prairies in late March and early April at the beginning of the spring thaw. During wet years, the birds settle on expanses of sheet water formed by melting snow or rain. While deeper potholes and marshes are still frozen, these ephemeral wetlands warm quickly, supporting multitudes of tiny invertebrates that provide breeding hens with the nutrients required to successfully nest and produce eggs. Pintails are birds of wide-open spaces, and unlike mallards and other dabblers, they will nest in short vegetation typical of the semiarid western prairies. Because hens regularly nest in such sparse cover, often as far as a mile from the nearest water, they require large tracts of secure nesting habitat.

During the past century, more than three-fourths of the Prairie Pothole Region’s original grasslands have been lost. Grassland losses have been especially high on flat or gently rolling prairie landscapes, which often contain numerous shallow, ephemeral wetlands preferred by breeding pintails. The conversion of native prairie grasslands to cropland has been the primary cause of the long-term decline of pintail populations and remains the single greatest threat to the pintail’s future. But recent research supported by DU has discovered that much of the pintail decline since 1980 has been caused by how agricultural lands on the prairies are managed.

Thirty years ago, many farmers on the Canadian prairies idled their fields every other year. Standing stubble left in these idle fields usually wasn’t tilled for weed control until late May or early June, giving early-nesting pintails an opportunity to hatch a brood. Consequently, during the wet years of the 1970s, large numbers of pintails hatched on idle cropland likely bolstered production on remaining grasslands, enabling pintails to produce enough young to support impressive wintering populations in areas such as California’s Central Valley.

Unfortunately for pintails, during the past three decades most prairie farmers have shifted to annual cropping schedules where most fields are planted every year. As a result, most pintail nests in crop stubble are now destroyed well before their hatching date when the fields are seeded in early to mid-May. This dramatic shift in farming practices has eliminated nearly 13 million acres of potential pintail nesting habitat that once existed on fallow croplands in Prairie Canada, likely having a devastating impact on the population (see graph).

Beyond the prairies, significant numbers of pintails breed on wetlands associated with vast inland river deltas in the western boreal forest and tundra regions of northern Canada and Alaska. These deltaic wetlands also support large numbers of nonbreeding pintails during drought years on the prairies and during the summer molt. Although development impacts in the north remain relatively light compared to the prairies, the future expansion of logging, mining, and oil and gas development could threaten wetlands used by large numbers of breeding and molting pintails and other waterfowl.

Pintails have also suffered extensive habitat loss on key wintering and migration areas. Of particular importance to pintails and other waterfowl are seasonally flooded wetlands, which contain seeds and invertebrates that are important natural foods for the birds. In the Pacific Flyway’s most important pintail wintering area, the Central Valley of California, more than 95 percent of its original wetlands have been lost, and wintering waterfowl now rely heavily on flooded croplands, especially rice fields, for feeding and resting habitat. But these croplands are now threatened by urban development and water-use conflicts driven by California’s rapidly growing human population. Farther north in the Klamath Basin of northern California and southern Oregon, where the majority of Pacific Flyway pintails gather to feed and rest during the spring migration, remaining wetlands are threatened by chronic water shortages and declining water quality exacerbated by years of severe drought.

Pintails face equally daunting habitat challenges in the Central and Mississippi flyways. Along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, massive losses of coastal wetlands and a 50 percent decline in rice production have greatly reduced wintering habitat for pintails and other waterfowl. And in Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin and the Platte River corridor, high wetland losses have forced pintails and other waterfowl to gather into dangerously large concentrations that are vulnerable to catastrophic outbreaks of avian diseases.

Strategies for Recovery

DU and its partners are pursuing several conservation strategies to benefit pintails. Using waterfowl survey data collected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Canadian Wildlife Service during the past 50 years, DU recently developed maps showing average pintail breeding densities across Prairie Canada (see graphic). By combining this survey data with wetland and land-use information using geographic information systems technology, DU has identified the landscapes that are most important to breeding pintails and the conservation practices that will most effectively conserve these key habitats.

Given the importance of agriculture on the prairies, promoting wildlife-friendly farming practices is an essential component of DU’s pintail initiative. An agricultural practice that holds great promise for breeding pintails and other ducks is the cultivation of fall-seeded cereal grains, specifically winter wheat and fall rye. Farmers plant these crops in the fall directly into standing stubble left after harvest, and the following spring the fields provide more secure upland cover for breeding pintails, mallards, and other upland-nesting ducks. Recent DU research comparing pintail breeding success in spring-seeded and fall-seeded grainfields in southern Saskatchewan found that pintails hatched an average of one nest in every 72 acres of fall-seeded crops, compared to one nest in every 1,332 acres of spring-seeded croplands.

DU is presently working with plant breeders to develop new cold-tolerant varieties of fall-seeded cereals that are more suitable for cultivation on the northern prairies. Since 1992, these efforts coupled with favorable growing conditions have fostered a 500 percent increase in the acreage of winter wheat and other fall-seeded cereal grains in Canada. In 2004, Canadian farmers grew more than 700,000 acres of winter wheat in Prairie Canada, a 52 percent increase in the acreage of winter wheat grown the year before. 

DU and its partners also work with prairie farmers to convert marginal croplands to grass cover, typically for hay production or cattle grazing. During the past decade, an increasing trend in forage production has produced a net gain in grassland acres across southern Saskatchewan, the continent’s most important pintail breeding area. A two-year study conducted by DU and the Saskatchewan Wetland Conservation Corporation found that pintails hatched an average of one nest in every 142 acres of hay land—nearly 10 times the hatch rate observed in spring-seeded croplands.

In areas of the prairies where large tracts of native prairie and wetlands remain intact—typically on grazing lands—DU is working to permanently protect highly productive waterfowl habitats that are threatened with conversion to cropland. In North and South Dakota, DU and the USFWS have permanently protected 570,000 acres of vital waterfowl habitat by purchasing wetland and grassland easements from private landowners. The ranching community has embraced these easements—in which landowners receive a one-time payment in return for granting permanent protection to wetlands and grasslands on their property—as a means of protecting their way of life. Unfortunately, the demand for easements far exceeds available funding. In July 2005, more than 580 farmers and ranchers were on waiting lists for easement evaluations on nearly 290,000 acres of grassland. DU and its partners are striving to raise the more than $47 million in public and private funding that will be required to protect this vital habitat for breeding pintails and other waterfowl.

DU also protects remaining tracts of native prairie by accepting donated conservation easements from private landowners and by purchasing select properties threatened with imminent development. A prime example is the 960-acre Cowan tract in South Dakota bought this summer by DU and the USFWS. This extensive tract of native prairie, which supports from 80 to 100 pairs of nesting ducks per square mile in wet years, would have been broken up and converted to cropland if DU had not provided vital emergency funding to save it. Located adjacent to an existing 1,441-acre waterfowl production area, the Cowan tract is especially productive habitat for breeding pintails because its flat topography contains numerous shallow wetland basins that regularly attract large numbers of breeding pairs.

Another important objective of DU’s pintail strategy is to promote wise government conservation policies and agricultural programs in both the United States and Canada. Pintail populations have generally fared better in the U.S. portion of the Prairie Pothole Region in part because of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Through this voluntary program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pays landowners to protect wetlands and restore former croplands to grassland under 10- or 15-year contracts. CRP is believed to have contributed to a 30 percent increase in duck production in the Great Plains states and has added millions of ducks—including thousands of pintails—to the fall flight each year.

Currently, 4.7 million acres of former cropland are enrolled in CRP in North and South Dakota alone. But contracts on the majority of this land will expire during the next three to five years, and if CRP contracts are not renewed, most of this productive waterfowl breeding habitat will be returned to annual crop production. Reauthorization of CRP and other waterfowl-friendly programs is a top priority for DU as Congress begins debate on the 2007 Farm Bill.

In Canada, DU is consulting with federal and provincial officials to develop and expand similar programs, such as Greencover Canada, that compensate farmers for conserving wetlands and grasslands through the nation’s Agricultural Policy Framework, the Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Farm Bill.

Farther north in the western boreal forest and tundra regions of Canada and Alaska, DU is using satellite remote-sensing technology to map vital wetlands and study waterfowl breeding ecology in these areas. DU uses information gathered in these efforts to work with government agencies, industry, and Native groups to protect especially valuable wetlands and to minimize impacts of mining, timber, and oil and gas development on other fragile waterfowl habitats.

DU is also focusing on conserving wetlands in key pintail wintering and migration areas in the United States and Mexico. In the Central Valley, for example, DU is working with a broad coalition of partners to efficiently manage public water resources, restore wetlands, and protect threatened agricultural lands. Along the Gulf Coast, DU is a leading partner in the America’s Wetland campaign dedicated to conserving Louisiana’s threatened coastal marshes and is cooperating with the agricultural community in south Louisiana and Texas to manage seasonal wetland habitats on rice fields and other agricultural lands.

In the Klamath Basin, DU is working with several government agencies and other partners to reduce water conflicts and restore vital waterfowl staging habitats. And in the Rainwater Basin, the Nebraska Environmental Trust (NET) recently announced that it will provide $850,000 over the next three years to help DU meet its goal of purchasing, restoring, and protecting 12,000 acres of wetlands and associated uplands in the region. In 2002, NET helped DU create a revolving fund that was used to establish the 920-acre Verona wetland complex, which provides vital spring staging habitat for multitudes of pintails and other waterfowl.

Clearly, pintails face many challenges throughout their vast continental range. Without immediate action to protect, restore, and enhance vital pintail habitats—especially wetland-rich native grasslands on the prairies—these highly admired birds may decline to levels that can no longer sustain hunting. By supporting these urgent conservation efforts across North America, DU members, volunteers, and major donors can make a valuable contribution toward the future of the pintail and other waterfowl.