Looking back on the 2018−2019 duck hunting season, it's important to remember how blessed we are to be enjoying a significantly long period of healthy, above long-term average populations of waterfowl. It wasn't always the case where we had liberal bag limits and consistently surpassed the North American Waterfowl Management Plan objective of having at least 100 million fall flight birds. Many of us "older" hunters remember the years of the "point system," then a reduced bag to three birds! In order to establish clear rules of engagement from both the population health and harvest perspectives, a system was agreed to by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and state agencies responsible for wildlife management that would have harvest limits guided by certain scientific measurements. Thus, in 1995, the Adaptive Harvest System (Framework) was agreed to and is driven by adaptive resource management on a year-to-year basis.
To ensure population health and non-harmful harvest scenarios, several uncertainties had to be addressed. According to the USFWS, those were: environmental variation in weather conditions and habitat health; how hunting harvest plays into the overall health and sustainability of duck populations; nesting bird counts and recruitment of fledglings; and the incomplete understanding of the birds' life-cycle needs. This also drives much of the research into nutritional needs and ecosystem management that Ducks Unlimited's scientists regularly work to understand.
The USFWS working with the states created the Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) program as a systematic process for dealing objectively with these uncertainties. The key components of AHM are: limiting the number of regulatory alternatives (liberal, moderate, or restricted bag limit); using mathematical models to explore various alternatives and placing a confidence level on each of the models; and describing the objectives in terms that can be measured. This is done in partnership between the USFWS and the states in each of the four flyways. After receiving input from the states, the USFWS Director receives advice from the Service Regulatory Committee, composed of executives who oversee activities of the USFWS across the country, but are also qualified scientists. All scientific data and recommendations from both the states and the committee are considered and a decision is made on whether the information supports a liberal, modified, or restricted bag limit in each flyway.
It is after all this scientific review and discussion that the states receive the approved number of days of hunting in each flyway and the species composition allowed in each harvest. The states then decide how they will use those days (e.g., 60 days and six birds in the Mississippi Flyway) based on input from their hunters.
Even considering the challenging year that we have had for hunting, we have seen an unprecedented period of stability in the harvest regulations based on good water conditions, good habitat management, and sound harvest management. The scientific reality is that conditions will change and we will once again have more restricted seasons and bag limits. Given the natural fluctuation of weather cycles and disease, it isn't a question of IF, but rather of WHEN. We have hunters who have hunted for more than 20 years that have not seen hunting restrictions invoked. That is why Ducks Unlimited focuses on habitat rather than sheer population numbers, and that is why DU will continue to do so. We know these are the Good Old Days but we work to ensure a buffer when conditions worsen. Habitat is the key, and Ducks Unlimited is the world's leader. Thank you for all you do for conservation.