One of the most important elements in duck breeding success is the amount of water present in portions of prairie and parkland Canada and north central United States. Total pond counts for the United States and Canada combined showed 4.4 million ponds, a 37 percent decrease from last year's estimate, and 10 percent below the long-term average. Habitat conditions in 2008 were a good news / bad news scenario. Drought in many parts of the traditional survey area including the prairie pothole region contrasted sharply with record amounts of snow and rainfall in the eastern survey area.
The FWS spring surveys provide the scientific basis for many management programs across the continent including the setting of hunting regulations. The Flyway Councils and the FWS Regulations Committee will meet in July and early August to recommend and adopt the season structure and bag limits for 2008-09. Individual states will make their selections following these meetings. Hunters should check their state's rules for final dates.
"The decline in breeding habitat conditions is consistent with what Ducks Unlimited's field biologists have reported across much of the U.S. and Canadian breeding grounds this spring," said Ducks Unlimited's Chief Biologist, Dale Humburg. "While late rains may have improved habitat for late nesting species, and for renesting and brood rearing, poor production will likely occur over key productions areas, particularly the prairie grasslands of the U.S. and Canada."
The mallard population was 7 percent below last year. An estimated 7.7 million mallards were on traditionally surveyed areas this spring, compared to last year's estimate of 8.3 million birds. However, mallard numbers were similar to the long-term average.
"The lack of an increase in mallard populations is consistent with a delayed spring and decreasing ponds in key mallard nesting areas; however, mallards remain at levels above the long-term average and near the North American Waterfowl Management Plan goal," said Humburg.
The most positive news coming out of this year's survey continues to be for redheads, green-winged teal and scaup. For the second straight year, redheads remained above 1 million birds (66 percent above the long-term average). Green-winged teal populations remained similar to the level in 2007 and were 57 percent above the long-term average.
Scaup numbers appear to have stabilized at similar levels for the last 8 years remaining at 3.7 million in 2008, similar to the 3.5 million surveyed in 2007. Breeding scaup numbers remain 27 percent below their long-term average, however.
As expected, some breeding populations declined as habitat conditions deteriorated from 2007 to 2008. Although 6 of the 10 commonly surveyed species showed no significant change, 4 species declined appreciably. Notable declines were in numbers of breeding canvasbacks (-44 percent from 2007), northern pintails (-22 percent), gadwalls (-19 percent), and northern shovelers (-23 percent). Canvasbacks were at an estimated 489,000 breeding birds in the survey area 14 percent below their long-term average. Pintail numbers declined to 2.6 million, 36 percent below the long-term average. Despite declines from 2007 in numbers of gadwalls and shovelers, populations remain well above long-term averages (both +56 percent).
"Severe drought occurred across much of the northcental U.S. and Prairie Canada − much of the core pintail breeding area," said Humburg. "The poor habitat conditions likely will lead to limited pintail production and recruitment into the fall flight."
American wigeon numbers, at 2.5 million, remained similar to 2007 levels and the long-term. Although blue-winged teal populations did not change significantly from 2007, they remain well above the long-term average (+45).
"Pintails and scaup continue to be well below their long-term averages and remain a significant concern," said Humburg. "Habitat changes are believed to be the primary causes of decline for both these species. DU and partners continue targeted research programs on scaup and pintails that we hope will improve our understanding of the conservation actions that will help these species recover."
Since 1990, surveys have been conducted in eastern North America. In contrast to the western surveys most of the eastern survey area experienced record or near-record winter snowfall and spring precipitation accompanied by average to below-average temperatures. Population estimates for the 10 most abundant species surveyed were similar to last year and to the 1990-2007 averages.
Wet and dry cycles, where water levels fluctuate over time, are vital components of maintaining wetland productivity. This is true for all wetlands, but is especially important for the prairie potholes of the northern plains. Although the short-term effect may be fewer breeding ducks, wetlands are rejuvenated during severe droughts.
It's important to note that droughts are temporary. If we can keep grassland and wetland habitats intact, when the water returns, prairie wetlands will again teem with breeding waterfowl and other wildlife. Equally important to note is that more stable wetland areas such as the boreal forest provide critical nesting habitat, particularly during drought years on the prairies. In 2008, these areas where rated as fair to excellent although in most places spring was delayed by 1-2 weeks.
"Habitat is the core factor driving the health of duck populations and the size of the fall flight," said Humburg. "Habitat also is a key for waterfowl in migration and for hunters. This year, spring and early summer flooding in the Midwest and South, drought in the Prairies, and extremely dry conditions in parts of the west coast, could affect migration and hunting habitat."
As painful as the current drought is, waterfowl and prairie habitats are facing even greater long-term threats. Grassland habitat is under siege on many fronts and is being lost at alarming rates. The U.S. Prairie Pothole Region lost more than 800,000 Conservation Reserve Program acres last year, and more than 3.3 million acres of native prairie are projected to be lost during the next five years unless governors in affected states opt into Sodsaver. There has never been a time more important than today to maintain our focus on restoring and protecting these habitats, so when wet conditions return they can continue to produce ducks for future generations.
With more than a million supporters, Ducks Unlimited is the world's largest and most effective wetland and waterfowl conservation organization with more than 12 million acres conserved. The United States alone has lost more than half of its original wetlands − nature's most productive ecosystem − and continues to lose more than 80,000 acres of wetlands important to waterfowl each year.