In early September, much of the western United States continued experiencing extreme or exceptional drought conditions, including many areas critically important to waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway.
The Klamath Basin is home to the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges. These two refuges provide some of the most important migration habitat in the entire Pacific Flyway. In a normal year, the refuges provide nearly 40,000 acres of wetland habitat. This fall they will provide less than 5,000 acres and early season hunting will be limited to dry fields.
Things appear to be a bit better in Idaho. Although water levels are low in many of the state’s wetlands, food production has been good. Still, normal fall rains are needed to give hunters access to these habitats. Snake River flows are below normal, which may mean less boat traffic and less bird disturbance. However, some river habitats may freeze earlier due to being shallow.
Further south, water levels in the Great Salt Lake declined to record lows. Nearly all of the Lake’s 300,000 acres of wetlands and a third of the Lake’s 160,000 acres of managed wetlands are dry. Although unmanaged wetlands in the Great Salt Lake are not heavily hunted, they provide areas where birds are mostly free from disturbance. Without these habitats waterfowl may depart the Great Salt Lake sooner than normal.
Drought impacts in Washington and Oregon are varied. While coastal areas are largely unaffected by the drought, public lands west of the Cascades are a mixed bag. Popular areas like Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and Sauvie Island Wildlife Area are in good shape, while other public lands like Fern Ridge Wildlife Area may be lacking water by opening day. Eastern Washington is experiencing exceptional drought conditions, however, agricultural and wetlands habitats important to mallard hunters in the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project seem to be holding up. Unfortunately, many natural wetlands outside the irrigation project are dry.
Southeastern Oregon has been hit especially hard. Most of the wetlands in the Warner Valley and Harney Basin are dry or drying up, including the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. A bright spot is the Summer Lake Wildlife Area where habitat conditions should be good as much of the area is spring fed.
The drought is strongly impacting the Central Valley. In a normal year, the Valley contains about 210,000 acres of managed wetlands and 340,000 acres of winter-flooded rice fields. All or most wetlands are flooded by opening day. This fall only about half of these wetlands were expected to have water when the season begins. Winter-flooded rice fields provide hunting opportunities for up to a third of all California hunters. Unfortunately, only about 100,000 acres of winter-flooded rice fields are expected this season. However, habitat conditions in the Central Valley can quickly change due to winter storms. The 2015 drought ended when California received heavy rains in early January.
Several breeding areas supply the Pacific Flyway with its birds including Alaska, the Western Boreal Forest, interior British Columbia, southern Alberta, and parts of Washington, Oregon and California. Alaska, the Boreal Forest and interior British Columbia have largely escaped the drought and duck production was thought to be at or above normal. In contrast, production from the other areas was low.
Ducks Unlimited Inc. is the world's largest nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving North America's continually disappearing waterfowl habitats. Established in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 15 million acres thanks to contributions from more than a million supporters across the continent. Guided by science and dedicated to program efficiency, DU works toward the vision of wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever. For more information on our work, visit www.ducks.org.