As the bullets fly, DU’s Louisiana brain trust answers questions about the organization’s goals, successes and future in the Bayou State.
No matter one’s position on the organization, it’s impossible to deny that Ducks Unlimited has done a tremendous amount of good for waterfowl, and hunters who pursue them, across the North American continent.
Founded in 1937, DU has grown into the largest waterfowl and wetland conservation organization in the world, boasting 1 million members in the United States, Canada and Mexico. Those and preceding supporters have donated and raised $1.6 billion to aid and protect duck-breeding grounds and wintering marshes since the organization’s inception.
A significant portion of that support has come from Louisiana, where the zeal of hunters for the birds of winter is legendary.
In 2002, for example, Louisiana ranked first among the 50 states in miscellaneous event income, having contributed $586,923 to DU’s coffers, and raised a total of $2.1 million for the year through grassroots efforts.
But DU has come under fire in the last two years from some Bayou State hunters who feel the money contributed to DU is disproportionately benefitting hunters in other states.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries earlier this year even pulled a portion of its annual donation to DU, and gave it instead to Delta Waterfowl, a competing organization.
Last month, Louisiana Sportsman Editor Todd Masson sat down with DU employees Hugh Bateman, Chuck Smith and Chad Courville to get the answers to the questions many hunters have been asking.
Bateman, who has been with the organization since 1999, serves as DU’s director of Louisiana conservation programs; Courville, who’s also been with DU since 1999, is a regional biologist; and Smith, a 17-year veteran of DU, is the regional director in charge of southern Louisiana.
LS: Ducks Unlimited took somewhat of a PR hit last year when rumors swirled around that the organization was heating fields and spreading grain in the Midwest to keep ducks north of here and in the more populous states. What is DU’s response to that?
Bateman: In a nutshell, we would like not to dwell on that because 90 percent of that, as far as I’m concerned, is behind us. I equate most of that with people seeing Big Foot and believing in black panthers. The credibility of all that has been challenged at every level, and no one that I know of has brought anything to the table that says that DU did any of that.
LS: How important is Louisiana’s habitat to the health of North American waterfowl?
Courville: In Louisiana, the goal is to provide habitat for 10 million birds. We may never have 10 million birds at one time, but that’s the goal.
Bateman: Louisiana impacts 25 percent of the total continental waterfowl population. For one state to touch that big a percentage of the total fall flight, obviously it’s a pretty important state.
Courville: If you look at (DU’s) level-one priorities, that would kind of represent how important Louisiana is to Ducks Unlimited. We have two level-one priority areas in the state, being the lower Mississippi Valley and the Gulf Coast.
Bateman: And there are only five level-one priorities in the United States.
LS: Are these areas considered level-one priorities because they need attention, or are they level-one because of their importance to North American waterfowl?
Courville: Both. They identify both the number of birds that use that particular area and whether that habitat’s threatened and continuing to see habitat loss. These are threatened areas that are significantly important to large numbers of waterfowl. That’s what our continental conservation plan is based on — the best available science pooling all of those resources.
Smith: The other level-one priority areas are on the breeding grounds, so Ducks Unlimited ranks coastal Louisiana just as important as the breeding grounds in prairie Canada and the northern United States.
Bateman: That’s where we’re spending the bulk of our resources. DU’s conservation plan is based upon the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), which was put in play back in 1985. That was a vision of 1) Where waterfowl-important areas are; 2) What kind of condition are they in; 3) Where do we need to be doing wetland-conservation work. That whole plan has been really the absolute cornerstone of wetlands conservation.
LS: How important is the state of Louisiana to the Ducks Unlimited organization?
Smith: Very, very important. Louisiana last year ranked third or fourth in the nation as a contributor state. Louisiana generates $3 million at the grass-roots level. We rank in the top 10 in most of the different categories that DU keeps track of for the different states.
LS: That being the case, why has DU spent a relatively small amount of its expenditures on projects in Louisiana? According to information available on the DU website, the organization has spent $140 million in the Mississippi Flyway, with $20 million of that being spent in Louisiana.
Bateman: The great majority of that money has been spent on the breeding grounds. DU continentally has conserved, over the history of the organization, 11 million acres of wetlands. When I say ‘conserved,’ that means ‘touched;’ that doesn’t mean that they’re all in existence today. About 9 million of that has been in the breeding grounds. About 1 1/2 million of that has been on the wintering grounds, and about a 1/2 million of that has been in between.
So if you break that out in percentages, the vast majority of the money and effort that DU has put together over the years has really been focused on the breeding grounds. One of the reasons for that is DU didn’t do any work anywhere but the breeding grounds until 1985, and the first project done outside the breeding grounds was on Marsh Island, Louisiana. That was a pretty significant change of direction for DU.
So that’s part of the reason those figures look like they do, and it’s pretty logical, really.
LS: So DU has relatively lately realized the importance of the wintering grounds, whereas early on in its existence, it solely focused on the breeding grounds?
Bateman: Well, the original DU charter was made up by people in the United States who figured out that during the Dust Bowl days and the drought years in the ’30s there had to be a way to do something about the area where most of our ducks that winter in the continental United States come from, which was in Canada. There really wasn’t a logical way to get money to Canada, except that these sportsmen got together and formed an organization that evolved into Ducks Unlimited. That’s where the focus of their efforts were for years — on the breeding grounds.
As time evolved and as the NAWMP was put together, that plan itself identified the reasons why we’re doing work in more places other than breeding grounds. Ducks have got to survive for 12 months, not just four months or six months, and they’ve got to have adequate wetlands everywhere they are, and wetlands have got to be distributed up and down the flyway in a reasonable fashion.
After people got to looking at the health of wetlands up and down the North American continent, they realized that there were a lot of places that lost a lot of habitat. The figure quoted in the Prairies is they lost 70 percent of their original landscape wetlands that were there back in the early 1900s. There are actually places in the United States that have been settled and developed much longer ago than that where 90 percent of the wetlands have been lost.
So, those very knowledgeable people who got together and developed the NAWMP realized and proposed that we needed to start doing work everywhere.
That trail takes you right back to DU’s mission, which says we restore and conserve wetlands everywhere ducks occur, and we do that to benefit waterfowl and other wetland creatures.
Courville: A lot of people who are way more knowledgeable than I am have identified areas as critical areas, one being the Rainwater Basin in Nebraska.
Bateman: You look at the Platte River Basin, or the Rainwater Basin, in north-central Nebraska, and it’s a reverse hourglass effect in the spring. When birds go back to the breeding grounds, they all funnel into this little, puny area that has been terribly degraded over the years and has lost nearly everything. All these birds leaving from down here going back north settle in that area to wait for the weather to get just right to continue their migration.
That place has been identified in this process of looking at the big picture, not just Louisiana, not just the breeding grounds.
That’s one of the things DU’s doing right now, and quite frankly, a lot of biologists see a link between the problems with the Rainwater Basin and the problems with the pintail populations.
LS: What is the process by which DU selects a project for funding? Can a wealthy contributor pressure DU to do wetlands work on land he owns?
Bateman: As far as I know, that’s never had anything to do with anything in terms of direction. Generally, once you identify the areas that conservation work needs to be done in, then you have what I refer to as opportunities to do conservation work, and it can take the form of several approaches. You can have a private individual come and suggest something or you can have a landowner or a state department of wildlife and fisheries or a Nature Conservancy or someone say, “Look, we have a way to do a good wetlands project. Does it fit your mission? Does it fit in your priority area?”
If the DU biological staff agrees that it does and there are funding mechanisms to get the work done, then we try to get that project done.
There are opportunities that come to us an endless variety of ways. Most people who own those wetlands are people who have some wealth. You don’t find many people like Hugh Bateman, who doesn’t have much wealth at all, with a whole lot of wetlands for you to work on, but people like Miami Corp. or Burlington Industries or the Catholic Church, for instance, that own the large tracts of wetlands up and down the coast and are trying to get things done offer opportunities to do work on their wetlands.
The conservation staff in Louisiana is generally broken up into two parts — we have an engineering staff and we have a biological staff. The engineering staff is not by accident because that’s how you determine how much water you can put on a certain tract of land by doing certain things. So we’ve got a civil engineer who works for us, and he’s got technicians who work for him who use GIS surveys and topographic maps on the ground to determine how feasible that particular project is going to be, how much it’s going to cost and what you’re getting for your dollar.
I can assure you, what we’re doing in Canada and on the wintering grounds is a hell of a lot different than what we were doing 30 years ago. We’ve gotten smarter, thank goodness. We continue to evolve in terms of applying good science to good engineering to getting the biggest bang for the buck.
One of the things that I promise you has not escaped anybody is that 75 percent of the remaining wetlands in North America are on private property, and a lot of that is made up of working farms that are probably under more economic stress now than they ever have been before. What DU has tried to do is become more effective in working with the private landowners.
We’ve got a number of examples of that here in Louisiana. On the coast, we’re working with private landowners daily and have a number of projects that were recently completed or are ongoing that fit in with the coastal-restoration plan.
Wetlands are extremely dynamic; they’re very, very difficult pieces of landscape to try to “control” from year to year and make them perform at the same level with the same efficiency to produce the same amount of food. All one has to do is look at coastal Louisiana from year to year and how much it changes.
Mother Nature kind of reminds us of that every now and then, and we she decides that she wants to deliver 23 inches of rain over about a 10-day period in October, which is exactly what happened last year, it can change the face of things overnight. These birds that we love so dearly can react to that in an instant, and they can either leave or show up in a place that hasn’t held them in the past.
LS: What is DU’s position regarding non-hunting refuges? A number of hunters feel that ducks may not be coming to Louisiana because they have so much refuge land to spread out on in more northern states.
Bateman: Don Young, DU’s national executive vice president, just took a position in support of hunting on refuges within the last few months. That issue is not really a new issue; it’s been around for quite a few years. Most of the focus has been on the federal level.
Quite frankly, in my opinion, a lot of that has been overplayed in terms of how much influence that has on things.
DU in Louisiana has always supported projects that go on on a refuge where there is a reasonable opportunity for public use, including waterfowl hunting.
The number of refuges that are non-hunting and the amount of grain that’s available on refuges to hold birds are really not near the level that most people perceive they are.
LS: If I’m a duck-hunting fanatic in Louisiana and I’ve got a few extra dollars to spend, why should I send my money to DU?
Courville: My answer is that long-term investments in habitat provide long-term results. It’s plain and simple.