By Steve Adair, Ph.D.
Habitat. It is the common denominator that provides food, water, shelter, and nesting sites for all species. There has to be enough high-quality habitat for wildlife populations to survive and grow. Ducks Unlimited leads in its habitat conservation work to provide healthy waterfowl populations for hunting, observation, and at times, just pure enjoyment. Although waterfowl habitat is DU's focus, none of its projects have signs that read "Ducks only, all other species keep out." In fact, many of our projects do as much for other game species as they do for ducks. Why? Because high-quality, abundant habitat is the underlying factor that all species need to thrive.
I have lost count of how many times I've asked people whether they were members of Ducks Unlimited and they responded, "No, I don't hunt ducks, I hunt turkeys," or "I used to be, but now I mainly hunt pheasants." Is that a valid excuse? Let's examine some of the data that is being collected on conservation efforts around the country.
When most people think of ring-necked pheasants, they think of walking wooded shelterbelts, cornfields, or buffer strips in the Great Plains, with hundreds of pheasants busting from the cover. This has to be the habitat sustaining these birds, right? While these areas are good places to hunt pheasants, they may not be the best places to grow pheasants. Recent population modeling conducted for Iowa suggests that pheasant populations actually respond much more strongly to large blocks of grassland as opposed to buffer strips. When simulated townships contained 25 percent of the landscape in Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) buffer strips, pheasant populations were only 5 percent greater than when there was no CRP at all.
When 25 percent of the landscape was placed in large CRP fields, pheasants were 53 percent greater than with no CRP. In a recent review completed by South Dakota State University, researchers found that in a typical winter, cattail wetlands, tall grass, and food plots ranked highest in hen use. Woody cover was preferred only during a severe winter, which occurs one in every 10 years. Pheasant nesting success was also lower in and around shelterbelts in South Dakota because of the attraction of these areas to predators. Cattail wetlands and large blocks of grassland are two of the primary habitats Ducks Unlimited is protecting and restoring through its Grassland for Tomorrow Initiative in the Great Plains. While this program is reaping huge benefits for prairie-nesting ducks, ring-necked pheasants are benefiting greatly as well through the winter cover and nesting habitat provided through this conservation initiative.
Wild turkeys have made a tremendous comeback in this country after reaching dangerously low levels in the early 1900s from habitat loss and over- harvest. Much of this recovery has been accomplished through stocking programs and harvest regulations, but in order for these measures to be successful, the habitat has to be in place to sustain the birds. Research has shown that mature oak woodlands are particularly important for turkey populations. Oak woodlands provide acorns and other mast-which are important components of turkey diets-as well as understory cover and preferred roosting sites. The protection and restoration of oak woodlands along river floodplains is a primary goal of DU's Lowcountry Initiative in the southeastern U.S. and DU's River CARE Initiative in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. While these conservation activities are securing a lasting habitat base for wintering waterfowl in the form of seasonally flooded oak bottoms, they are also providing critical habitat to growing wild turkey populations.
Okay, maybe, you will concede, there is a convincing argument to be made for most hunters to support DU, but how about fishermen and nonhunters; there can't be much for them? While it is true that DU does little work on the deepwater habitats found in oceans, lakes, and rivers that sustain most adult fish, it is the shallow wetlands, salt marshes, and river floodplains where most juvenile fish grow with reduced threat of predation. For fish populations to increase, these "nursery grounds" need to remain healthy and abundant, and in many cases these are some of the same shallow wetlands that are important to waterfowl. In the Pacific Northwest, wild salmon populations have dwindled to alarming levels. Most of this decline has been blamed on the numerous dams placed across major rivers that impede inland salmon migration to traditional spawning areas.
Accumulating evidence suggests that there may be a lesser-known factor operating as well. Historically, these river systems in the Pacific Northwest had vast floodplains that were frequently inundated, connecting the river to adjacent wetlands. As flows began to be regulated through dams, many of these floodplain wetlands were diked, ditched, and drained. Recent evidence collected on juvenile salmon shows increased growth and survival rates for individuals in some floodplain habitats, compared to juvenile salmon raised in river channels. These floodplain wetlands are the same habitats important to breeding and migrating waterfowl and are a primary focus of DU's Pacific Northwest Initiative.
These are just a few examples of how DU's landscape initiatives are helping maintain and grow populations of other game and fish species while retaining our sharp focus on the best waterfowl habitat on the continent. Similar examples could be given for sharp-tailed grouse, white-tailed deer, redfish, blue crabs, and many others. Abundant high-quality habitat needed by waterfowl is shared by many of the other species we also enjoy hunting and watching. So the next time you are out raising funds or recruiting members for Ducks Unlimited, and someone responds with "I don't hunt ducks, but I hunt something else," you'll be able to give them the rest of the story. The number one habitat organization in North America is just that, the number one habitat organization for waterfowl-and many other game and fish species.