The Science Basis of Ducks Unlimited

Defining science-based decisions in the waterfowl management community

By J. Dale James, Ph.D., John Coluccy, Ph.D., Kaylan Kemink, and Mark Petrie, Ph.D.

By now you have heard it said numerous times, “Ducks Unlimited’s conservation project delivery and advocacy actions are guided by the best available science.” But what does that really mean?

Ducks Unlimited’s conservation scientists and planners gather information and data that aid our understanding of where, how, and what we need to do to be most efficient and effective in conserving wetland habitats across the continent for the benefit of waterfowl, other wildlife, and people. We guide programs based on benefits to waterfowl. We evaluate their effectiveness to ensure we are accomplishing what we set out to do, and we assess the benefits of DU’s conservation actions to people and other species beyond waterfowl.

Our science base began with the compilation of waterfowl life histories and species-specific research in the early 1900’s. While much has been determined in the last 100 years, habitats, hunting methods and regulations, climate, and other factors that influence waterfowl distribution and abundance have changed dramatically. What may seem like minor changes, such as a month earlier harvest date of agricultural crops like rice, can have dramatic impacts on the resources available to waterfowl across the landscape. As such, we continually investigate questions that will aid us in managing North America’s waterfowl and wetland resources for future generations.

Efforts to evaluate existing conservation programs and inform decision making include new studies in traditional waterfowl and wetland science as well as studies in nontraditional areas of social, economic, or physical sciences. Information generated from these areas of science are becoming increasingly important as the world’s population continues to grow, and competition for space and natural resources increases. Ducks Unlimited’s commitment to this science-based culture allows us to be a credible source for current wetland, waterfowl, and ecosystem service information which in turn supports our conservation delivery, policy, communications, and fundraising efforts. 

Peeling the Onion of Being Science-Based

Today, the claim of being “supported by science” is becoming ambiguous. Unfortunately, we do see many instances of misinterpreted or poorly conducted science supporting positions on almost every topic imaginable. It is challenging for most people to delve deeply enough into various studies to accurately assess the validity of findings. Fortunately, DU has tremendous scientific expertise on staff.

Fundamentally, being science-based means adhering to the foundational qualities of the scientific process, including defining and documenting measurable questions or objectives that allow for re-creation of data, providing objective evidence in terms of reporting the quantitative information at hand, as well as those uncertainties and questions that remain (what we don’t know but desire to learn). It also means being transparent by demonstrating how information is derived, responding to public inquiry, and educating this same public about what we know and what we still need to learn. Finally, being science-based means using information that has gone through independent review by a peer (i.e. experts on the subject) review system that validates and helps improve the quality of research information. This last step is critical, as professional scientific consensus from qualified wetland and waterfowl ecologists is what turns research into evidence.  

In our current world of social media news, it has never been easier to have opinions or unvalidated “facts” reported. Science, at its core, is data and has no opinions. It is simply a method to provide evidence to support or refute a hypothesis (testable assumption). The biggest difference between opinion and science is that opinions cannot be verified by evidence, they are merely beliefs. By understanding the process of what science-based means and where and how scientific information is developed, each of us can ask our own questions and better inform ourselves.

One of the greatest things about science is that scientists can and will disagree about results and findings. While that can be frustrating for people wanting a single solution to what are often complex problems, scientists see these contradictions or complications as opportunities to utilize the scientific process to develop more information and continue testing assumptions. Think about how complex the systems we study are when talking about the natural world, and how little control we have over many aspects of it (like temperature, rainfall, and presence of other animals). Findings from a multitude of studies are required to refine results and determine true cause and effect.

We can’t all be experts in everything, but there are some basic steps we can all take to evaluate the information we are presented with. The first step is often to read the full article, as headlines quite often misrepresent the article’s information in order to be more sensational. Second, when we read or hear someone say they have science to support their facts or opinions, we should all be our own citizen scientist and ask a few questions. Why was this research conducted? How was it funded? How much data is there? Is it a snapshot in time or a long-term study? Does the data support the conclusions drawn? Is data published in a credible, peer-reviewed journal, or was it found on a website with no citation? Am I reading the original paper or a quoted point in an opinion piece? 

Research Around the Country

Ducks Unlimited’s science staff work closely with many universities and other agency researchers and science staff to develop projects that fill knowledge gaps and better inform our conservation planning efforts. Data acquired through such research efforts aid in informing biological planning, which we do in concert with many partners through Migratory Bird Joint Ventures.  We work together to communicate this information to land managers and communities across the continent to educate and garner support for wetland conservation efforts. Our engagement with research is also an investment in the future of waterfowl and wetland conservation, as many of our funded graduate students find future employment with Ducks Unlimited, universities, federal and state agencies and other non-profit conservation organizations.

Our conservation planning efforts are complemented by a dedicated staff of GIS analysts and programmers that provide many services, including development of maps and other visual tools to aid fundraising and policy efforts or guide conservation delivery. They enable us to model our landscapes and their ability to support waterfowl populations, quantify wetland benefits provided to all of us through ecological services, or plan by using projected changes in landscapes, climates, etc., and incorporating these data into scenario modeling.  

  • In the Prairie Pothole landscape, current research in collaboration with James Cook University and the University of Tasmania is examining dynamic processes and connections within a social-ecological framework. Scientists are investigating how to improve our return on investment from conservation dollars, linkages in waterfowl distribution throughout the breeding season, and landowner decision-making. Ducks Unlimited is also supporting research led by Iowa State and Louisiana State Universities to examine how duck brood abundance is related to wetlands in cropland-dominated landscapes. These results should aid in targeting the acquisition of the most important wetland easements in these types of landscapes.
  • Further east, Ducks Unlimited has partnered with the Black Duck and Atlantic Coast Joint Ventures on several research projects to examine American black duck behavior, habitat use and availability, energy content of foods, and daily energy requirements. Knowledge gained from this body of research has enabled development of the Black Duck Decision Support Tool (DST). This powerful scientific tool is being used to guide black duck conservation efforts by identifying priority habitats for protection and restoration. The model identifies watersheds that are in energy (habitat) deficit and provides habitat restoration and land protection objectives. The DST also applies future landscape condition predictions in the model by incorporating sea level rise and urban growth projections. This enables us to think about protecting and restoring not only good habitat today, but also land that will be good habitat in the future. We have limited financial resources to acquire and manage habitat, so we must get the biggest bang for the buck. The current application of the DST is focused in the mid- and north Atlantic region, but DU and partners are working towards expanding the model to the south Atlantic, eastern Canada and Upper Mississippi River/Great Lakes regions.
  • The Northern Pintail is a species of greatest conservation need in many State Wildlife Action Plans and continues to be a species of focus in all four Flyways. DU is supporting research led by the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M-Kingsville that is designed to inform conservation and management efforts surrounding pintails. Researchers will capture and attach tracking devices to a sample of female northern pintails at each of six major wintering locations annually for three years. This will allow a comparison of spring migration and wintering strategies (migration speed, arrival date on breeding areas, etc.) of hens from different areas and the relationship of those strategies to their reproductive success. This project also aims to identify critical stopover areas for pintails migrating from these different wintering areas.
  • Geese in the Central Valley consume more food per individual than ducks do, and goose breeding populations are experiencing near exponential growth in some regions, with a disproportionate increase in the wintering population located within California’s Central Valley. For example, current white goose (lesser snow and Ross’s geese) populations in the Central Valley may be nearly three times the set objective. Eventually goose populations would become self-limiting, but possibly not before they limit other waterfowl species that are still below population objectives. A current research collaboration between Ducks Unlimited, Central Valley Joint Venture, California Department of Fish and Wildlife, California Department of Water Resources, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of California at Davis, California Waterfowl Association, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is utilizing state-of-the-art tracking technologies, population survey and statistical estimation techniques, and energetics modeling to evaluate existing and potential future impacts of goose interspecific competition on food resources used by wintering duck populations as well as California breeding ducks. This effort will entail assessment of energetic demand and food supplies, use of duck and goose distribution data collected within the Central Valley, and include continental assessments of breeding population trends and carrying capacity. This research program will inform waterfowl planning and management efforts in this region.  

Ducks Unlimited and the larger waterfowl management community take pride in being able to provide science-based information. Properly conducted research provides the evidence needed to address waterfowl management issues and guides our efforts to conserve North America’s waterfowl populations and the wetland ecosystems they rely upon. Disregarding scientific information and relying upon personal observation and/or intuition is neither efficient or effective conservation as it can lead to costly decision making and poor outcomes. Ducks Unlimited and our many partners in science and research are dedicated to the long-term management of sustainable ecological systems through applied research, education, and communication.