DU Podcast Transcript: Ep. 20 – DU Chief Scientist Talks Landscape Changes in Regard to Wintering Distribution (2 of 3)

Dr. Tom Moorman talks about distribution in regards to wintering habitats

© Michael Furtman

Clay Baird: Welcome to the Ducks Unlimited Podcast. The only podcast about all things waterfowl. From hunting insights to science based discussions about ducks, geese, and issues affecting waterfowl and wetlands conservation in North America, we bring the resource to you. The DU Podcast, with your host, Chris Jennings.

Chris Jennings: We were talking about migration and wintering distribution. Big topic. Where are the ducks? I've got Dr. Tom Moorman, Ducks Unlimited's Chief Scientist here with me. We already went through weather, which is a major component of migration, but we're going to focus on landscape change and variation here, and Tom, there's some really interesting information about how the landscape, how the habitats have changed, and how that impacts the wintering distribution of waterfowl throughout all of North America.

Tom Moorman: Yeah, there is. There's both a long term historical ecological perspective on landscape change, and then there's the more modern, say, what's happened in the past 10 to 20 years, and both of them influence waterfowl distribution, obviously, none of us were around when a lot of the change happened, but we are here and seeing additional change that continues to happen. I think one of the things that often people don't really think about or appreciate is, if you pick any landscape important to waterfowl in North America, whether it's the Prairie Pothole Region, Mississippi Valley, the Gulf Coast, Central Valley, South Atlantic, wherever you are, those landscapes, a way to think about them is sort of like a living, breathing organism, and they change. And sometimes in unexpected ways, and sometimes in rapid ways, and sometimes for the better to waterfowl, but more often than not, we see change that impacts waterfowl negatively.

Chris Jennings: Absolutely.

Tom Moorman: So it's important to kind of think about that as you start asking yourself, "Where are the ducks?" And to kind of put some historical perspective on it, if you think back to 200 or 250 years ago, if you think about those places that maybe you hunt now that are well known waterfowl landscapes, Gulf Coast, Mississippi Valley, the Prairies, all were in native habitat. Hardwood bottom lands, coastal marsh, prairie grassland. Well, in the course of just about 150 years, it went from those to intensively altered, highly agricultural landscapes, and birds had to adjust, they had to adapt. And probably about the turn of the 19th Century, we started to learn and hear ... not we, because I wasn't alive quite then, but we started to have documentation that birds were starting to field feed on grain, on harvested grain fields.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: So that's been around a long time, going on over 100 years, some species like mallards, or geese actually probably pioneered it, mallards probably learned from geese. And now, they're well adapted to do that, and that has implications to migration timing and fall distribution relative to what hunters see because they can stay longer if there's food that's not covered by snow and ice.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. And I always use the example with people, think about a snow goose. Born in the tundra, flew all the way and wintered in the Gulf Coast. They had to get there, they couldn't even stop in most areas, to now, there's so many different areas to stop. So that's always a good example that I use for people to explain that sort of thing.

Tom Moorman: Snow goose populations historically probably were limited by winter habitat in that migration.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: Because it was essentially nonstop. Now, they have multiple places where they can refuel, mainly on waste agricultural grain, and we've seen a population response. There may have been a half million snow geese at one time back in the day, and now we have, by some estimates, over 14 or 15 million.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: And no end in sight in terms of their population trajectory. It could go much higher. So yeah, you see those kinds of things and it's important to keep that kind of thing in your long term perspective as you think about ... you're sitting in your duck blind, not seeing any birds, and thinking about how these birds have adapted to some of these changes.

Tom Moorman: Then, in the more near term situations, we still see wetland loss and drainage, we still see changes in cropping practices. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and sometimes that perspective depends on what latitude at which you live and hunt. Corn, for instance, is expanding northward. It's now grown in North Dakota and in Manitoba. Now, mallards, geese, pintails especially have all adapted to field feeding on waste grain. They were pretty good at using wheat, and peas, and barley that was already there, and now they have additional land that's also been converted to corn, and some of that took native prairie out of production to grow that stuff. So they've got a lot of options that that latitude. Typically, they'll get kicked out of there by snow and ice. But as they come south, we still see lots of agricultural waste grain in fields, and they still are able to make use of it.

Tom Moorman: Then, on the reverse side of that, that increased the carrying capacity or habitat for waterfowl. On the reverse side, if you look at places like the Gulf Coast, rice agriculture has actually declined by 50% or 60%, and snow geese especially kind of voted with their stomachs and moved out. Especially coastal Texas, right? Now, they're up in the Mississippi Valley where there's still about a million acres of rice.

Chris Jennings: That Texas area used to be, historically it was well known as a fantastic-

Tom Moorman: It was a ... That's right.

Chris Jennings: Snow goose hunting area.

Tom Moorman: That's right. All kinds of outfitters down there and all that sort of thing, and most of that today is ... there are still a few down there, but it is nothing, it's a shadow of what it used to be with millions of geese having moved north into the Mississippi Valley.

Tom Moorman: The other one I think that people maybe don't think about, but since about the 1930s, Louisiana has lost 40% of its coastal wetlands. That amounts to somewhere between one and two, 1.3 million acres of coastal wetlands. That is a huge change in the landscape in terms of its capacity to support wintering waterfowl.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: Even as recently as the 1970s or '80s, there was still more marsh down there than there is today. So now we're starting to talk about, in the lifetime of an individual hunter, you can see these changes.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: And people down there wondering where their ducks went. Well, if their marsh turned salty and doesn't have food, the ducks won't use it, and further, if it erodes and turns into open water, the ducks surely won't use it, and that's happened a lot down there.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. And there's other variables involved in that too. Even if the marsh hasn't eroded, there could be a nonnative species-

Tom Moorman: Oh, absolutely.

Chris Jennings: Moved in. And we can get into that here shortly, but that's a huge issue down there as well.

Tom Moorman: Sure. Invasive species of plants cover up a lot of those wetlands, and they're not beneficial to waterfowl.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. You're leaving them with nowhere to really go, nothing to eat.

Tom Moorman: That's right.

Chris Jennings: There's really no reason for a duck to be down there if you have a complete wetland loss, which makes Ducks Unlimited's coastal restoration work even more important down there, especially.

Tom Moorman: Yeah. Absolutely.

Clay Baird: [ADVERTISEMENT] Be the first to know when ducks are on the move. Sign up for DU's waterfowl migration email alerts and receive ongoing in depth updates on the latest habitat conditions, weather changes, and hunting reports for your flyway. Visit Ducks.org/migrationalerts.

Chris Jennings: You had a couple different examples of it, with the Texas and the Gulf Coast, but just the overall loss of wetlands, I think people have a hard time understanding how that impacts, all the way from Canada to the Gulf Coast, and if you could just kind of explain exactly what people may see just in their lifetime throughout the Mississippi/Louisville Valley or something like that, that you guys are seeing on the science side. Maybe it's bottomland hardwood floors, maybe it's simple prairie semipermanent wetlands, things like that that you're seeing, that the science team can really point at and say, "Oh man, this right here could be very impactful." Can you just point out a couple examples of that too?

Tom Moorman: Sure. So there's a lot of variation within and among landscapes relative to what happens, and most of them, generally speaking, have lost habitat. Historically, certainly they've lost habitat. Almost every state in the US has lost 50% or more of its wetlands. The same is true for most of the prairie provinces. So that in and of itself affects not only waterfowl production, but also places for birds to sit, rest, and refuel during migration, and places to sit in over winter. So we see that over the long term. In some landscapes, there have been fairly significant efforts at restoration. You think about the Wetland Reserve Program, some of those kinds of things, have put some habitat back. It's going to take several more decades for that stuff to synergize and come together and be really useful to waterfowl. There are others where we continue to see significant loss.

Tom Moorman: We just talked about the Gulf Coast. There are others where maybe restoration or rice producers have joined us or partnered with us to flood rice fields, say, the Central Valley, California. About half the birds that winter in the Central Valley of California are dependent upon flooded rice fields. That's great, except until you understand water policy and scarcity in the west. So while they've made significant gains in working with those producers, if there's a law or a policy shift in how water is allocated, then that water could go away, and in the blink of an eye, thousands and thousands of acres of winter waterfowl habitat is at high risk and could be gone. And we saw that actually happen just north of California in southern Oregon, the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Some changes in water allocation were clarified by the courts, and the refuge system no longer gets very much water. They flood now about 2,000 acres, where I think they used to flood about 30,000 acres.

Tom Moorman: It's important in fall, but when it was really critical was for spring migrating details. So we see those kinds of things, we can quantify their impact on landscapes and the landscape's ability to support birds, and those are the sort of things that we're constantly monitoring and trying to assess impacts, and more importantly, be nimble enough to respond, and restore, enhance, or increase the capacity of the remaining habitat so that birds can be there and hunters can have birds while they're hunting there.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. It's very much a targeted conservation reaction.

Tom Moorman: It is.

Chris Jennings: And that makes it very difficult. We'll go ahead and move on here, and one thing that everyone asks about in the where are the ducks is, not only was it warm last season, frustratingly warm, I probably fielded so many phone calls where I'm like, "Hey guys, it's 62 degrees in Nebraska in January." That was my answer to about 50 phone calls, but it was wet.

Tom Moorman: Boy.

Chris Jennings: Unusually wet.

Tom Moorman: Yeah.

Chris Jennings: So let's explain what happens to waterfowl distributions when just an amazing amount of water hits these landscapes.

Tom Moorman: Sure. So last winter is a really good example, and it wasn't just one landscape. If you go and look at National Climate Data Center or NOA's websites, one of the things you can look at, and this is one of the things I look at actually, if you're trying to get a sense of what habitat conditions are, say, in the Mississippi flyway in fall or winter. You can look at river flow. What does that relate to? Well, it's a good indicator or proxy for not only precipitation, but for how many wetlands might be on the landscape. Last winter, rivers throughout the eastern half of the United States, basically from the Mississippi River east, were all at the 75th percentile or more in flow, and most of them were at the 90th percentile.

Chris Jennings: Wow.

Tom Moorman: What that tells me is that most of them are at flood stage, right?

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: They're all flooded, they're all flooding, and translating that into a landscape scale situation, there is water, water everywhere, which means ducks can be just about everywhere that the water depth is appropriate for them to feed, and they can be anywhere where there's water and they can sit and be undisturbed.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: If they're just chilling out. So when you get a year like that, birds have tons, and tons, and tons, acres, and acres, and acres literally, probably millions of acres of options.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: And even in the face of intense hunting pressure, as much as hunters would like to be everywhere they can that ducks are, in a year like that, it's impossible.

Chris Jennings: Yeah. That's impossible.

Tom Moorman: It's just impossible.

Chris Jennings: I've heard reports of several hundred thousand ducks, mallards mainly, sitting along these flooded out rivers and areas that, even traditional hunting clubs in Arkansas, and Mississippi, and some of these places that have fantastic habitats, they're just not drawing birds once these normally dry habitats actually get that water.

Tom Moorman: Yeah. Over the course of spring and summer, of course I have to travel a lot at my job, but I talked to a lot of hunters from Wisconsin, North Dakota down to Louisiana, and the story was pretty similar.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: Exceptionally warm, unusually warm, and man, was it wet.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: And I guess, as a duck hunter this is a little painful, but it's a great year for ducks, not a great year for duck hunters.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: And in fact, the harvest, if you go to Fishing and Wildlife Service's harvest data, if you look at that, almost all the states had reduced harvest.

Chris Jennings: Absolutely.

Tom Moorman: Not just the south. It was everywhere.

Chris Jennings: Yeah.

Tom Moorman: It was just a crazy year.

Chris Jennings: And that was the thing. I talked to guys who I hunt with in Mississippi, and they're, of course, they're boo-hoo-ing, it's, they're having a terrible season. My buddies in Indiana, they're having a terrible season. The guys in know in Minnesota, they were not having a good season. So it's kind of one of those deals where even on the east coast, it was rough, and it was almost a laughing matter just because it was so frustrating that we're like, it's literally misery loves company here. We're all in it together, and it was a rough season throughout.

Tom Moorman: Yes it was.

Chris Jennings: And that makes the perfect recipe. You've got warmth, water, additional habitat on the landscapes for ducks to get away from hunters to feed, everything. It really, really made for a tough, tough duck season.

Tom Moorman: Yeah. I guess if there's a silver lining in that kind of a situation, birds over winter and survive really high in years like that, so more should have returned to the prairies than might have otherwise, and unfortunately, when they got there, they found pretty dry conditions, so we're probably not going to see a huge bump out of that. Had it been wet, we might have gotten an extra bump.

Chris Jennings: For a second there, I thought you were going to be the absolute optimist.

Tom Moorman: Oh, I wish I could, man.

Chris Jennings: I know.

Tom Moorman: I was in Saskatchewan twice this year. Pretty tough to be a duck this year.

Chris Jennings: Absolutely. Well Tom, I appreciate you joining me here. We're going to go ahead and wrap this up. Thanks a lot, and I'm sure everyone picked up some great information from this.

Tom Moorman: Thank you, Chris. Enjoyed it.

Chris Jennings: Special thanks to Dr. Tom Moorman, our guest today, and a special thanks to Clay Baird, Ducks Unlimited Podcast producer, who does a great job putting this show together. I'm your host, Chris Jennings. Thanks for joining us, and thanks for supporting wetlands conservation.

Clay Baird: Thank you for listening to this episode of the DU Podcast. Be sure to rate, review, and subscribe to the show, and visit www.Ducks.org/DUPodcast for resources based on today's topics as well as access to more episodes. Opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect those of Ducks Unlimited. Until next time, stay tuned to the ducks.