For Chad Courville, a  combination of ecological data plus harvest data — not public opinion — is key to making sound decisions on setting duck and goose seasons in Louisiana.

The newest member of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission, who was appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal earlier this spring, last Thursday proposed moving the state’s coastal zone duck season up one week to Nov. 7 this fall, and also included in his motion an 81-day specklebelly goose season with a two-bird daily bag limit.

His proposal ultimately passed in a split 4-2 vote by the Commission at its August meeting, and immediately drew the ire of many coastal zone duck hunters who preferred the traditional second-Saturday-in-November start proposed by Larry Reynolds, the waterfowl study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. 

Many goose hunters also were upset that even though a 74-day season with a three-bird limit was allowed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for specklebellies this year, the Commission opted for a more conservative 81-and-2 season.

Commissioners Billy Broussard, Bart Yakupczak and Ed Swindell voted for Courville’s proposal, while Pat Manuel and Dan Davis were opposed. Commissioner Ronny Graham was absent, and Swindell immediately resigned from his seat after the meeting to begin serving on the Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council. 

“A lot of people are speculating as to what my motives were,” Courville said in an interview earlier this week. “I’m a duck hunter at heart, and the last thing I want to do is something bad for Louisiana hunters. 

“And I’ll be honest with you: I think that more time focusing on harvest data and species-by-zone, and that type of information, will allow us to make better decisions about setting seasons and season frameworks, and we’re going to have a better group of Louisiana hunters who are more in tune with what’s going on in their state, up and down the flyway and up in the breeding grounds.”

Duck-wise, numbers consistently indicate Louisiana hunters kill more birds early in the first split of the season, which played into his decision to recommend bumping the Coastal Zone start up a week.

“I’ve responded to some people that had some concerns about my recommendation on the duck season,” he explained. “I said the second the harvest data indicates we shoot more birds in January, I’ll be the first advocate for hunting more January days. But until then, we’ve got to stick with the data that’s based on harvest and migration chronology. 

“The hunter opinion is data, but I’m a lot more comfortable standing on top of the harvest data and migration chronology, as opposed to standing on opinion data.”

Sticking with the harvest data also makes for an unbiased decision, said Courville, who works as as the land manager for the Miami Corporation in Lafayette.

“As I appreciate it, we don’t set seasons on opinion for any other species. We set it on data,” Courville said. “For deer, we set it by the estrous cycle by area — that’s why we have so many areas. Turkey season is the same thing. I appreciate peoples’ opinion, and everybody is entitled to their opinion, but chasing opinion is a slippery slope. 

“Looking at harvest data and looking at survey data is an unbiased approach to setting seasons. And it’s my belief that a hunting season is to maximize opportunity within the federal framework provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service. And to do that, I think we really need to factor in harvest, migration chronologies, surveys, and from a duck standpoint, species-by-zone as well.”

Crunching the harvest numbers — and understanding what the data reflect — is key in coming up with the optimal season dates, he said.

“So what I’m hoping that we would eventually do is have time to look at all of those harvest trends by zone and by species. Then factor in what we know about migration chronology of those species, and start making proposals on season framework based on that, because this is where people will have to decide what they believe is the intent of a hunting season,” Courville said. “If it’s to maximize opportunity by zone within the federal framework provided, you’ve got to think that you have to use the harvest statistics as the primary guideline. 

“Because even if you have fewer birds in the state, but they’re more vulnerable to hunting, then obviously your chances of success are higher.”

For goose hunters, Courville pointed out his original proposal for the Commission was for an 88-day season with a two-bird bag limit. He was asked by another commissioner if he was OK with reducing the season to 81 days, and he agreed.

The variability of the number of white-fronted geese (specklebellies) that arrive in Louisiana from year to year is cause for concern, he said.

“For Canadas and specks, I don’t think we have a very good handle on what’s going on with those two birds in this state. We need to spend a lot more time talking about them, and finding out what’s going on with them,” he said. “Do we have a legitimate pressure problem, or is just one year they’re here and one year they’re not?

“Is our habitat becoming more or less friendly to geese? I haven’t seen the habitat analysis of that area as far as what percentage of it has been converted out of rice, or has gone idle, but that’s the kind of stuff we need to find out to know if the number that we’re counting is a real number. And frankly, that matters more to me than what everybody thinks we should be doing.” 

Regardless of season length, one question Courville wants to know the answer to is how long the specklebelly population remains in Louisiana.

“And as I appreciate it, nobody could answer that question,” Courville said. “But we need to know the answer because, what good is it to have extra days if you don’t have specks in the state? 

“The whole point of my mindset, and what I believe my role on the Commission is, is we’ve got some fundamental questions that we need to ask. And if we don’t have the data, we probably need to spend some time and allocate some resources and go find out what that is.”