Late September rains brought much-needed relief to the parched Pacific Northwest, but many wetlands remain more dusty than damp and could use additional rainfall. That could mean tough hunting for mallards, at least early in the season, when hunters depend on birds produced locally and on the prairies.
“It’s the driest it’s been on the prairies in a generation,” says Brandon Reishus, waterfowl coordinator for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Maybe not as dry as in the 1980s and early ’90s, but we may see some significant reductions in midcontinent populations.”
On a brighter note, many other waterfowl species, such as American wigeon, northern pintails, and green-winged teal, are largely raised in Canada’s Western Boreal Forest and Alaska, where wetland conditions are more stable than on the prairies.
Many goose populations also remain healthy. “Our local Canada geese always do well,” chuckles Jeff Knetter, upland game and migratory bird coordinator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Cackling geese also appear to have had good production on their northern breeding grounds. Cackler numbers are still below average, but not enough to trigger more restrictive regulations. There were no official surveys on Russia’s Wrangell Island this year, but anecdotal information suggests that populations of snow geese remain at healthy levels.
Kyle Spragens, waterfowl section manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, notes that eastern Washington bore the brunt of the drought in his state. “I’ve never seen it this dry,” Spragens says.
The western part of the state, while drier than normal, “is a saving grace,” Spragens notes. Good wetland conditions exist in coastal estuaries such Skagit Flats and Padilla Bay, north of Seattle, and south across Puget Sound to Olympia.
Spragens expects good numbers of wigeon, pintails, and green-winged teal to be present along the coast, and snow geese will soon be arriving in the Skagit Valley.
In Oregon, Reishus says drought has depleted many wetlands in eastern portions of the state. That said, with its vast marshes and wetlands supplied by an artesian spring and lake, Summer Lake should have its usual banner opener this year.
“The Columbia River is somewhat drought proof,” Reishus adds, noting that accessible areas along nearly 100 miles of river east of Portland should remain huntable. He predicts that the best area will likely be between Arlington and Umatilla.
Sauvie Island Wildlife Area, near Portland, should have average habitat conditions with plenty of water inside the dikes. Outside, though, water levels may be lower due to reduced flows in the Columbia River.
Downriver, look for good to excellent hunting as the region’s waterfowl adjust to dry conditions inland and look for better habitat west to Astoria. Reishus observes that wigeon and green-winged teal are already being spotted on coastal marshes.
In Idaho, many wetlands are showing impacts from drought. Although water levels are low across much of the state, moist-soil plant production has been excellent in dry wetland basins. If timely rainfall fills these wetlands, they will provide excellent habitat for migrating waterfowl.
Knetter predicts that the popular CJ Strike Wildlife Management Area (WMA) will have enough water to attract ducks and provide opportunities for hunters. In addition, Fort Boise WMA will reopen this fall after wetland enhancements were completed with assistance from Ducks Unlimited. Water levels are low on the Snake and other rivers in Idaho, which will provide good loafing habitat for waterfowl, but also make these waterways more vulnerable to freezing in bitter cold temperatures.