By Dale D. Humburg and Paul Schmidt

Not long after the season ends, most waterfowl hunters are already thinking about the next one. Over the ensuing months, they check out winter snow cover on the prairies, waterfowl population and habitat surveys, and summer wetland conditions. Finally, sometime in late summer, comes the announcement of waterfowl hunting regulations, which include season frameworks and daily bag limits in each flyway. Only then can waterfowl hunters make their plans for the upcoming season.

That's about to change.

Beginning with the 2016-2017 waterfowl season, federal regulations determining season lengths, bag limits, and other migratory bird hunting rules will be decided about three months earlier than in the past. As a result, waterfowl hunters will be able to plan for next season well before the first flights venture down the flyways.

What will not change are the long-standing efforts to track harvest, habitat, and bird numbers. The annual administrative process will continue to provide opportunities for public comment, and the new schedule will allow more time for that input. States will continue to provide specific recommendations for hunting regulations through their representatives on the flyway councils. And all this will occur within the overall framework for migratory bird hunting seasons that has been in place for decades. As directed by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the secretary of the interior has the responsibility to open the season each year to allow hunting of waterfowl and other migratory birds and to establish rules regarding the possession and transportation of these birds and other regulations pertaining to their harvest. That overall mandate remains unchanged.

A More Efficient Way to Set Waterfowl Regulations

For decades, hunting regulations for doves, teal, snipe, rails, and other early- migrating species have been released sometime in midsummer, but waterfowl hunters have had to wait until late summer or early fall to be notified of regular duck and goose season dates and bag limits. Federal administrative processes included separate regulations-setting cycles for early- and late-season migrants. As these processes evolved, however, the well-defined legal, administrative, and biological requirements for maintaining two separate regulations-setting cycles became increasingly difficult to meet. In fact, the timetable for regulations approval, which includes a required period of public input, has run right up against legal and administrative deadlines in recent years, potentially delaying the opening of waterfowl seasons.

These concerns led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to publish a Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (FSEIS) in 2013 that outlined a new framework for how waterfowl hunting regulations will be set. Public input and considerable analysis of alternatives resulted in a streamlined administrative process that will combine the early- and late-season regulations-setting cycles. Beginning in 2016, regulations for duck and goose seasons opening around October 1 will be established at the same time as those for doves, woodcock, rails, teal, and other early-migrating species. Seasons for migratory birds in Alaska, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands will also be set at this time.

The most significant change in the process will involve using the current year's waterfowl population data to recommend the following year's hunting regulations. On the surface, this might appear risky. However, the waterfowl management community has decades of experience as well as ongoing population surveys and banding operations to draw from as regulations are recommended and evaluated. In addition, the science of waterfowl harvest management has advanced considerably in recent years through a number of technical improvements. Finally, the long-term record has shown that waterfowl populations, even in the presence of highly variable habitat conditions, are very resilient.

Waterfowl Managers Have Learned from Experience

Waterfowl hunters have always experienced periodic booms and busts in relation to habitat conditions, waterfowl populations, and hunting opportunities and harvest. This is typical of the highly dynamic nature of waterfowl habitat and populations. We've seen duck numbers decline sharply during extended periods of drought in the Prairie Pothole Region, but when wet weather has returned to the prairies, wetland habitats have always recovered, duck populations have responded, and waterfowl hunting has been sustained.

Over the past 20 years, breeding mallard populations in the traditional survey area have varied by nearly 5 million birds, from 6.8 million in 2002 to 11.6 million in 2015. During the same period, wetland conditions on the prairies, reflected by the number of ponds surveyed in May, have fluctuated between 2.7 million and 8.1 million ponds. Liberal waterfowl hunting regulations have remained in place since 1995, yet the annual total duck harvest in the United States and Canada has varied by only about 4 million birds over those years, from 13.1 million birds in 2004 to 17.1 million birds in 2011. The bottom line is that over the course of two decades habitat conditions have varied substantially, waterfowl populations somewhat less so, and harvest least of all.

Waterfowl biologists have continually applied accumulated experience and new knowledge gained from emerging technical advances to improve waterfowl harvest management. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) was implemented in the United States to serve as a framework for recommending mallard hunting regulations and to more rigorously evaluate harvest impacts. Through AHM, mallard populations and harvests measured each year via breeding ground surveys and band recovery analyses have been compared to those predicted by quantitative models and computer simulations. Long-term questions about how duck production varies at different population levels and the degree to which harvest affects populations have been addressed more effectively through this system. Waterfowl biologists have demonstrated an analytical capacity to predict changes in populations and harvests. This rigorous framework will continue to serve as the basis for the waterfowl regulations-setting process. In the future, new technical developments will undoubtedly be combined with experience to further improve how data are used to guide harvest management decisions.

Surveys and Monitoring Will Remain Essential

The new regulations-setting process will require the waterfowl management community to continue to build on its experience and technical capacity. The system of waterfowl population and harvest surveys, as well as decades of waterfowl banding and band recovery analyses, provides what is arguably the most comprehensive database in natural resources management. Duck population surveys have been in place for 60 years, and harvest and hunting activity have been monitored for decades, with major improvements implemented during the late 1990s through the Harvest Information Program (HIP). Banding data, which provides specific measures of duck survival and annual harvest rates, have been used in waterfowl harvest management for more than 70 years.

At first it might appear that setting hunting regulations without current-year data would imply that population surveys and band recovery information have become less important to waterfowl managers. Actually, the opposite is true. The long-term record provided by population surveys and band recovery data is the scientific foundation on which the new regulations-setting process is based. Waterfowl managers will continue to monitor changes in populations and harvest, assess impacts on populations, and recommend potential modifications in the future.

Certainly, ongoing data collection will be essential as waterfowl harvest management evolves. However, existing data and experience already provide confidence in the new regulations-setting process. For example, the best predictor of next year's mallard population is the number of birds surveyed in the current year, and this holds true for most duck species. Thus, with knowledge of the previous breeding season's duck populations and early indications of habitat conditions and harvest, waterfowl managers will be able to reliably project trends in duck numbers and recommend hunting regulations with confidence.

Unlike projections of waterfowl populations, predicting habitat conditions from one year to the next is less certain. This is not surprising given that wetland conditions on the breeding grounds can vary dramatically from one year to the next, depending on winter and spring precipitation. Waterfowl managers recognize the potential for drastic year-to-year changes in habitat conditions, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the flyway councils will retain the flexibility to amend hunting regulations after the seasons are set. However, this is not expected to occur frequently, if ever.

What Does the Future Hold?

Understandably, some have expressed concern that the new regulations-setting process will result in decreased hunting opportunities. It's true that in the past, uncertainty about harvest impacts often resulted in more conservative hunting regulations. However, simulations that compared regulations based on the previous year's data with those using current-year data indicated little change in long-term harvest opportunity. Again, information gained from long-term monitoring and analysis increases our confidence that harvest impacts can be detected and revisions made to hunting regulations over time if needed.

Long-term monitoring has also yielded another important conclusion-waterfowl populations are more resilient than many biologists previously thought. Habitat conditions undoubtedly will be affected by periodic drought cycles on the prairies, duck numbers will follow habitat trends, and hunters will likely see more restrictive hunting regulations at times in the future. But our experience during the past 20 years has been instructive in terms of how waterfowl populations react to habitat conditions and harvest. Liberal hunting regulations have remained in place throughout the past two decades despite short-term declines in waterfowl numbers and habitat conditions. Waterfowl populations have rebounded when habitat recovered, while hunting opportunities and harvests have remained largely unchanged. Nevertheless, history suggests that another extended period of prairie drought and poor breeding habitat conditions will occur, and AHM will provide the science-based framework to determine whether seasons and daily bag limits will need to be adjusted accordingly.

Going forward, hunting regulations will remain an important component of waterfowl management. Biologists have learned, however, that fine-tuning these regulations each year is not as important as once believed. Other influences including habitat and weather conditions typically have a greater impact on waterfowl populations and harvests than do minor changes in hunting regulations. As a result, conservation efforts that focus on ensuring the long-term capacity of key landscapes to produce ducks and ensure the birds' fall and winter survival will continue to be a top priority for the waterfowl management community.

Dale Humburg is senior science advisor and Paul Schmidt is chief conservation officer for Ducks Unlimited.