False Narratives Swirling Around Poor Waterfowl Hunting Season

© John Hoffman

When parts of the country experience a poor waterfowl hunting season, hunters naturally want to understand why. Speculation swirls and false narratives emerge. It’s important to fact check what you are hearing before buying into explanations that sound good on the surface. Waterfowl hunters are the best when it comes to supporting conservation, but some false narratives can do more harm than good for waterfowl conservation. Let’s set the record straight by directly addressing a few of the misconceptions currently circulating within the hunting community.

Fiction: Poor duck hunting success in southern states is due to waterfowl being artificially held up in northern states by flooded agricultural crops managed for waterfowl hunting.

The facts: There is no credible science to support this theory. Migrating waterfowl use flooded harvested crops where available during migration. Some species also feed on waste grain in dry fields. In 2018, farmers planted 92 million acres of corn in the United States. The percentage of these acres that are flooded is very low. Even if these areas were broadly available, other factors would compel waterfowl to migrate. The extent of ice and snow cover in northern and mid-latitude states is the major driving factor of natural migration movements as this weather eliminates or reduces access to food resources, regardless of whether the source is agriculture or natural. Day length triggers migration behavior. As they begin migration, weather and hunting pressure are the primary drivers for where the birds will go.

Waterfowl migration is ultimately caused by declining day length, but many factors, including cold fronts with freezing temperatures that push the freeze line south, snow cover and access to food and open water are critical factors. Many species of waterfowl move south only as far as necessary to stay in open water south of the freeze line. This strategy minimizes how far they must fly away from their breeding grounds, making the return trip in the spring as short as possible so they can arrive earlier on breeding areas. Females that nest earlier are more likely to have a successful first nest or re-nest if the first nest is destroyed. Migration is risky for waterfowl, so reducing the distance they must migrate can improve their chances of making it back to the northern breeding grounds.

Another major factor driving waterfowl movement within migration is rainfall. Heavy rainfall patterns and widespread wet conditions provide many places for waterfowl to disperse, particularly when coupled with hunting pressure. During wet periods like the 2018-19 waterfowl season, ducks have many more options to move away from hunted areas, resulting in more challenging hunting conditions and reduced hunter success. 

Fiction: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) was changed in 1998 to establish a loophole that allows waterfowl hunting over unharvested crops that have been flooded by farmers and duck hunters.

The facts: Hunting waterfowl over unharvested crops that have been flooded has always been legal under federal baiting regulations and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). These laws have changed over the past 20 years or so to clarify what was considered baiting. One change clarified the law pertaining to moist soil management practices that encourages management of native vegetation. Another change addressed the standard of liability for hunting over bait from a strict liability standard (no pass for not knowing the area was baited) to a standard that requires some degree of knowledge. There has been no change in the legality of hunting over flooded, harvested or unharvested crops; this has been a legitimate, widely accepted waterfowl management practice for generations. 

Fiction: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) was amended in 1998 allowing the Cooperative Extension Service (CES) to enforce and regulate planting, harvesting and post-harvest manipulation dates related to hunting waterfowl over bait. These amendments and subsequent enforcement and regulation by CES made it possible for select farmers to plant and flood crops and hunt waterfowl in these flooded crops.

The facts: There has been no such amendment to the MBTA. Cooperative Extension Service (CES) specialists may provide recommendations to US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and farmers as to whether an activity is considered a normal agricultural practice, but the CES does not enforce or regulate baiting. This is the responsibility of the USFWS and state fish and wildlife agencies. The suggestion that these laws are somehow implemented or enforced selectively to favor certain farmers who partner with certain organizations is false and shows a profound misunderstanding of how these programs work.

Fiction: State waterfowl survey data in some states like Louisiana are somehow inflated to cover up the impacts on waterfowl populations caused by reform of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) that allows hunting of waterfowl over flooded unharvested crops. Discrepancies between State of Louisiana waterfowl surveys and Christmas Bird Count (CBC) data are cited as proof.

The facts: The notion that the MBTA was reformed in 1998 to allow hunting over flooded unharvested crops is untrue; this practice has always been legal and legitimate under federal regulations. There are many issues with using CBC data for comparison with other waterfowl survey data. CBC data, at best, provides some indication of trends over time but are not similar and cannot be compared to the statistically robust formal aerial surveys used in some states, including Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. DU works in close partnership with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) and all 49 other states. LDWF waterfowl biologists are very professional and highly qualified, and their waterfowl management program is well respected, as are those working in other states across the U.S. 

The LDWF survey was designed in cooperation with statisticians at Louisiana State University. It is a standardized survey with the same transects flown during each survey across all years, the only exceptions being when weather conditions preclude safe flights. The notion that LDWF would intentionally inflate waterfowl numbers as part of a conspiracy to keep waterfowl from migrating to Louisiana defies logic and is not true. All state waterfowl biologists take great pride in sustaining strong waterfowl populations in their states, and Louisiana has been one of the absolute top states in this regard for many years. The revenues from waterfowl hunting license and permit fees are important to the agency, so it makes no sense that the agency would be complicit in such a conspiracy. 

Fiction: The practice of managing water levels to flood unharvested crops for waterfowl hunting is harmful to waterfowl populations.

The facts: There is no credible science to support the notion that these practices cause harmful impacts to waterfowl populations. All professional experience and credible scientific evidence points to the contrary. The importance of providing high energy food sources for migrating ducks is common sense. This practice contributes to the health and survival of migrating waterfowl. A tremendous amount of natural wetlands habitat has been lost throughout migration flyways resulting in limited natural food sources. Impoundments where crops can be planted and flooded are important food sources for waterfowl and only partially replace the natural food sources that historically were available during migration. 

Fiction: Federal Farm Bill programs are paying farmers to plant and flood unharvested crops for duck hunting causing waterfowl to hold up in northern states and impacting waterfowl populations.

The facts: The agricultural practices and programs supported by the Farm Bill help provide essential waterfowl habitat on the breeding grounds, through the migration flyways and on the wintering grounds. The Farm Bill provides critical incentives for farmers and private landowners to provide important habitat for waterfowl and many other species of wildlife. Even with Farm Bill support, available habitat and food resources are estimated to be well below the science-based goals in the most important migration and wintering areas in the United States. Goals were established under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan to ensure adequate foraging habitat was restored to provide the food needed to support fall and winter waterfowl populations.

It is a serious mischaracterization and unfair indictment of honest farmers to suggest they are using Farm Bill programs and funding to shortstop waterfowl. Farm Bill programs such as the Wetland Reserve Program take frequently flooded, marginal land out of production and restore them to natural habitats. Such programs are helping waterfowl populations remain at sustainable levels to provide hunting opportunities as the waterfowl migrate south and keep them healthy on their return trip to the breeding grounds in the spring.

Suggesting Farm Bill programs are holding ducks up north ignores the fact that three of the four states with the most acres enrolled in the Farm Bill’s Wetlands Reserve Program are in the lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley – Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Together, these states have more than 700,000 acres of land that have been protected in perpetuity, and natural wetlands habitats have been improved (reforested and/or hydrology restored).

Fiction: Duck Unlimited pays farmers to plant and flood unharvested crops for duck hunting causing waterfowl to hold up in northern states.

The facts: At Ducks Unlimited, our primary mission is conserving, restoring and managing wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl. Working with public and private partners we support many efforts to provide habitat for waterfowl, but DU does not provide funding directly for farming practices on private or public lands where crops are planted and flooded to manage for waterfowl. DU partners with landowners to develop or repair water-control structures so those landowners can manage wetlands to benefit waterfowl, but DU does not provide direct funding for management of impoundments on public or private lands.

Fiction: The 2018-19 waterfowl season in Louisiana and other southern states was poor because waterfowl populations were held up or “shortstopped” in northern states.

The facts: The USFWS harvest statistics for waterfowl hunting in Louisiana do not support the theory that ducks are being shortstopped. Waterfowl harvest numbers for Louisiana have been on a positive trend since 1990, associated with increased waterfowl production during a remarkably long wet period on production areas in the US and Canada. This illustrates why DU’s work protecting priority nesting habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region is so critical.

For the 2017-18 season (the latest with data available), the Louisiana duck harvest was third highest in the nation (1.1 million ducks harvested) behind California (1.31 million) and Texas (1.21 million). All three of these states are at the southern terminus of their flyways. Louisiana had the highest harvest in the Mississippi Flyway, with Arkansas second at 1 million. The harvest success rate in Louisiana that season was 23.1 ducks per hunter coming in second highest in the nation behind California (23.2 – and California has a 107-day season with a 7-bird bag limit).

Fiction: Hunting in flooded agricultural crops managed for waterfowl hunting is keeping waterfowl from migrating south. This practice is limiting access to waterfowl hunting and keeping the ducks away from most hunters, which translates into an overall decline in waterfowl hunters, particularly in Louisiana.

The facts: Waterfowl populations and harvest statistics simply do not support the notion that hunting over flooded agricultural crops in northern states is causing a loss of waterfowl hunters. Continental waterfowl populations have been holding well above long term averages and North American Waterfowl Management Plan goals for more than a decade. Louisiana continues to have some of the highest waterfowl harvests and harvest rates per hunter, year after year. There are several rational reasons for the decline in waterfowl hunters in some states, but this practice is not one of them. 

Since 1937, DU has worked with state, federal and private partners to support robust waterfowl populations that provide hunting opportunities across all landscapes. Obviously, each hunting season is different as waterfowl populations change and seasonal temperatures and rainfall impact waterfowl movements. Throughout our history, DU has always kept our focus on maintaining healthy waterfowl populations. We place our highest priority on conserving, restoring and managing habitat on the breeding grounds, particularly the Prairie Pothole Region. We know if we do all we can to provide suitable wetland habitat and we get enough seasonal precipitation on the breeding grounds, waterfowl populations will continue to thrive. 

Fiction: Ducks Unlimited provides funding to public and private landowners for keeping water open in northern states after other waters have frozen over due to freezing temperatures. These artificially open water areas hold ducks in northern states and prevent them from migrating further south.

The facts: Ducks Unlimited does not provide funding to support practices that may be used to keep waters open as freezing temperatures begin to push waterfowl south during the migration. DU partners in all 50 states on projects that facilitate wetlands management and water control in impoundments to provide important waterfowl habitat that clearly benefits waterfowl populations, but public and private landowners, not Ducks Unlimited, determine how these areas are managed and cover the costs of management, including crop planting, harvesting and flooding.

Conclusion: It’s important to know the facts about what you are hearing before buying into explanations that sound good on the surface. Waterfowl hunters are the best when it comes to supporting conservation, but some false narratives can do more harm than good for waterfowl conservation.