By Matt Young
In a continued run of good luck for waterfowlers, breeding ducks reached a record high in 2015 following several consecutive years of exceptionally wet weather in the Prairie Pothole Region. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), this year's estimate of breeding ducks in the traditional survey area was 49.5 million birds, a slight increase from last year's record total and the largest since standardized surveys began in 1955. This year's mallard breeding population of 11.6 million birds was also a record, eclipsing the previous all-time high of 11.2 million birds set in 1958. In more good news for duck hunters, green-winged teal numbers were up 19 percent, hitting a record high of almost 4.1 million birds. Populations of gadwalls, redheads, canvasbacks, blue-winged teal, American wigeon, and northern shovelers were also well above their long-term averages, while northern pintails and scaup remained below their long-term averages.
Although large numbers of birds returned to the breeding grounds this spring, wetland conditions were generally less favorable for waterfowl production across much of the Prairie Pothole Region. May ponds-the unit of measure for wetland abundance on the prairies-decreased 12 percent in 2015, from almost 7.2 million ponds in 2014 to approximately 6.3 million ponds this spring. The total May pond count remained 21 percent above the long-term average, largely due to carryover water stored in wetland basins from the previous year. However, small seasonal wetlands, which are especially important to breeding dabbling ducks, were in short supply in many areas. Faced with drier conditions on the prairies, many waterfowl continued migrating north to the Boreal Forest, where surveys indicated that duck numbers were up significantly.
"An early spring balanced with poorer habitat conditions was apparent in this year's survey," says DU Chief Conservation Officer Paul Schmidt. "In addition to reduced precipitation over the winter and early spring, we have lost crucial nesting habitat with the decrease in Conservation Reserve Program lands and continuing conversion of habitat to agricultural production across the U.S. prairies. Fortunately, these conditions had minimal impacts on this year's overall breeding duck numbers, but hunters should be concerned about these trends and what they might mean in future years. We have experienced good moisture on the prairies and liberal bag limits for more than two decades. Continuing habitat losses and drier conditions have the potential to change this scenario in the future."
May pond counts and waterfowl breeding population estimates are compiled during extensive air and ground surveys conducted by the USFWS, Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), state and provincial wildlife agencies, and other partners. These surveys are essential to managing waterfowl populations and setting hunting regulations. The following report provides an overview of the status of habitat conditions and waterfowl populations across key breeding areas in the United States and Canada.
This year's mallard breeding population of 11.6 million birds was a record, eclipsing the previous all-time high of 11.2 million birds set in 1958.
The Pacific Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the western United States and Canada, with the majority of the flyway's ducks and geese coming from Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Alaska, and other western states. Alberta is a vital breeding area for continental waterfowl populations, and is especially important to Pacific Flyway waterfowl. In 2015, an estimated 5.7 million breeding ducks were surveyed across the prairie and parkland regions of this province, a level similar to the 2014 estimate and 33 percent above the long-term average.
"Although early-summer wetland conditions were generally good in Alberta thanks to carryover water from last year, water levels have been receding and agricultural crops are suffering from dry conditions," reports DU Canada biologist Ian McFarlane. "Our field staff has observed numerous waterfowl broods in areas with good habitat, and an average production year is anticipated."
Large numbers of Pacific Flyway waterfowl are also raised in central and northern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories. More than 11.6 million breeding ducks were surveyed in this region, a 16 percent increase from the previous year's estimate and 60 percent above the long-term average. Farther west, in Alaska and the Yukon, almost 3.4 million breeding ducks were surveyed this spring-similar to last year's estimate and slightly below the long-term average.
DU Canada biologist James Kenyon reports that an early spring may have benefited breeding waterfowl in the Western Boreal Forest, but drier conditions over the summer have resulted in widespread forest fires. "Waterfowl breeding efforts were a week or two early this year, with some mallard broods fledging in mid-July in northern Alberta," he says. "Overall, spring and early summer have been warm with below-average rainfall across the region. The impacts of numerous forest fires in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories on waterfowl have yet to be determined."
In the western United States, drought intensified in many areas this spring, taking a toll on wetlands and waterfowl production. In California, populations of mallards and total ducks were well below their long-term averages, and poor waterfowl production was expected in this state. Drier wetland conditions also prevailed across much of Oregon and Washington this spring, but duck populations remained similar to last year's estimates and their long-term averages in these states.
On a more positive note, the outlook for Pacific Flyway goose populations is bright. Breeding success among Arctic-nesting geese is influenced by the timing of the spring thaw as well as by weather and habitat conditions during the nesting and brood-rearing periods. In 2015, the USFWS reports that weather and habitat conditions were favorable for breeding geese in Alaska and the western Arctic. As a result, good production was expected for Canada, cackling, Ross's, lesser snow, and white-fronted geese as well as for Pacific brant in these areas.
The majority of Central Flyway waterfowl are raised on the prairies of the United States and Canada as well as in the Western Boreal Forest and the Arctic. Saskatchewan consistently ranks at the top of North America's most important waterfowl breeding areas, and this year was no exception. More than 13.5 million breeding ducks were surveyed across the vast grasslands and parklands of this province-similar to the 2014 estimate and 74 percent above the long-term average.
DU Canada biologist Kelly Rempel reports that despite variable wetland conditions, another strong waterfowl breeding effort was observed in Saskatchewan this year. "After promising early-season conditions due to abundant carryover water, wetlands started to draw down and expose mudflats by early July," Rempel says. "Isolated thunderstorms have since improved wetland conditions in localized areas, dropping several inches of rain in some cases. Waterfowl production appears to be very good, with far more early broods observed by our field staff than in past years."
In the north-central United States, almost 10 million breeding ducks were surveyed in 2015. In the eastern Dakotas, breeding ducks decreased 19 percent this spring, but remained 42 percent above the long-term average. In the western Dakotas and Montana, duck numbers were down 25 percent from the previous year's total, but remained 60 percent above the long-term average.
In late May and June, widespread rainfall greatly improved wetland conditions for breeding ducks across much of the northern plains. "I expect that duck production in 2015 will be on par with or only slightly reduced from what we've seen over the past five years," says Dr. Johann Walker, DU's director of conservation programs in Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota. "Ducks that settled in the Dakotas and Montana encountered dry conditions early in the breeding season, but late-spring and early-summer rains filled temporary and seasonal wetlands, resulting in a strong nesting effort and good brood production. Early field reports indicate that broods are abundant in the Missouri Coteau, James River Lowlands, Devils Lake Basin, and Montana Hi-Line.
"On the habitat conservation side, although losses of wetlands and grasslands are ongoing and most of the crucial wetland and grassland habitat remains unprotected, we continue to make great progress toward our conservation goals, and demand for conservation programs remains strong," Walker says. "Reallocated federal duck stamp funds and DU-sponsored North American Wetlands Conservation Act grants matched by philanthropic donations helped the USFWS and DU perpetually protect over 72,000 acres of high-priority waterfowl breeding habitat in the Dakotas and Montana during the past year."
The goose population outlook in the Central Flyway is generally good. Average to above-average production was expected among Canada geese and white-fronted geese in this flyway. Variable production was reported among lesser snow geese and Ross's geese, but large fall flights of these abundant birds are expected in 2015.
The Mississippi Flyway receives most of its waterfowl from the Prairie Pothole Region, as well as from Ontario, the Great Lakes states, the Western Boreal Forest, and the Arctic. In southern Manitoba, almost 2 million breeding ducks were surveyed in 2015-slightly below the 2014 estimate, but 29 percent above the long-term average.
DU Canada biologist Lena Vanden Elsen says the outlook for waterfowl production is mixed in southern Manitoba this year. "Habitat conditions have been variable due to sporadic precipitation combined with carryover water from last year's wet conditions," she says. "Nest initiation was early, but a severe mid-May storm may have reduced the size of mallard and pintail clutches. However, thanks to above-average spring temperatures, peak nesting cover growth occurred early, benefiting late-nesting species such as gadwalls and blue-winged teal as well as renesting mallards and other ducks."
Wetland conditions were also variable in neighboring Ontario. "While only 40 to 60 percent of normal rainfall fell in Boreal portions of the province in June, southern areas experienced the highest rainfall totals since the 1800s," reports DU Canada biologist David McLachlin. "Mallard nesting efforts were prolonged in these areas due to the continued availability of seasonal wetlands, and mallards and wigeon are taking advantage of recently flooded habitat along the Great Lakes, which are at above-average levels for the first time in years."
Mallards and other ducks raised in the Great Lakes states are an important component of the waterfowl harvest in this region as well as throughout the eastern Mississippi Flyway and in the mid-Atlantic states. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, mallard numbers were similar to last year's estimates and their long-term averages. In Michigan, mallard numbers were also similar to the previous year's estimate, but remained below their long-term average. Total duck numbers were up in Minnesota this spring and were similar to the previous year's estimates in Wisconsin and Michigan, but remained below their long-term averages in each of these states.
As in southern Ontario, heavy rainfall improved wetland conditions in the Great Lakes states following a dry spring. "Pond numbers recorded during breeding waterfowl surveys were down from last year, but late-spring and early-summer precipitation substantially improved wetland conditions for the crucial brood-rearing period," reports Dr. John Coluccy, director of conservation planning in DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Region. "As a result, hens and broods in most areas encountered average to good wetland conditions, and biologists reported seeing fair numbers of broods."
The goose population outlook in the Mississippi Flyway is mixed. Among northern-nesting Canada geese, the USFWS reports that the Eastern Prairie Population was expected to have an average to above-average fall flight, the Southern James Bay Population was expected to have an average fall flight, and the Mississippi Valley Population was expected to have an average to below-average fall flight. Good breeding success was reported among midcontinent white-fronted geese, and an average to above-average fall flight of these birds is expected. Production of lesser snow and Ross's geese was variable this spring, but large fall flights of these birds are expected again this year.
The majority of Atlantic Flyway waterfowl are raised in the eastern United States and Canada, although this flyway also receives large numbers of dabblers and divers from the prairies and Great Lakes states. In 2015, the total breeding population estimate for the six most abundant ducks in the eastern survey area (covering eastern Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Canada, Maine, and northern New York) was approximately 2.4 million birds. Among these species, populations of mallards, mergansers, goldeneyes, green-winged teal, and ring-necked ducks were similar to last year's estimates. American black ducks declined by 11 percent this year and were 13 percent below the long-term average. Approximately 1.2 million breeding ducks, including 540,000 mallards, were surveyed in the northeastern United States this spring. Both these populations were similar to the previous year's estimates.
The USFWS reports that wetland conditions were generally good this spring in Atlantic Canada (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Labrador), a key breeding area for black ducks and many other waterfowl species. "After a cool, late spring, conditions have been relatively warm and dry with little precipitation," reports DU Canada biologist Nic McLellan. "In general, broods appeared to be about two weeks late in the region. Our field staff have observed a wide range of age classes among duck and goose broods this summer, which suggests there was a strong renesting effort."
The forecast for Atlantic Flyway goose populations is varied. Breeding ground surveys indicate that an average fall flight of Atlantic Population Canada geese is expected this year, while greater snow geese should have an average to above-average fall flight. Below-average production was observed among Atlantic brant, and these birds are expected to have a smaller fall flight this year.
In 2015, waterfowl populations remained at high levels following several consecutive years of favorable wetland conditions in the Prairie Pothole Region and other key breeding areas. Nevertheless, widespread annual losses of wetlands and upland nesting cover continue to erode the habitat base that supports healthy duck populations, and waterfowl production will always be strongly influenced by annual variations in weather and precipitation on the breeding grounds.
DU CEO Dale Hall puts this year's waterfowl survey results in perspective. "We were fortunate to have continued high overall duck populations on North America's breeding areas this year," he says. "Though conditions were dry in some important habitats, we had large numbers of birds return this spring and good conditions in the Boreal Forest and other areas of Canada. Some typical prairie nesters skipped over the U.S. prairies and took advantage of good conditions farther north. The Boreal Forest, especially, can provide important habitat when the prairies are dry. But the Boreal is under increasing threats from resource extraction. This is an important reminder of the vital need for maintaining abundant and high-quality waterfowl habitat across the continent."