How the Migratory Bird Treaty Act Changed Waterfowl Hunting

December 7, 2016 by  

As I write this the first winter weather of 2016 is turning an extended fall into the reality of a typical November, which means ducks and geese on the move, and in many parts of North Dakota that can create quite a spectacle – for hunters and others who just enjoy observing migrating waterfowl on the wing.

A hundred years ago this annual migration of waterfowl and other birds wasn’t nearly as spectacular as it is today, and that’s part of the reason the United States and Canada developed the first Migratory Bird Treaty.

Great Egret

The Migratory Bird Treaty is the foundation for significant achievements in bird conservation. (Photo courtesy NDGF)

The recent October 2016 issue of North Dakota Outdoors magazine, a publication of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, featured the centennial of this landmark agreement, and it reminded me of the importance of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to what we enjoy today.

It’s not just ducks and geese either, but many other shore and wading birds that either nest in or migrate through North Dakota were headed toward extinction a century ago because of unregulated harvest for feathers for the millinery trade.

According to the Outdoors article, the treaty was the first international agreement to protect wild birds and among the first to protect any wildlife species.

“The U.S. and Canada are really important to migratory birds because they provide core breeding areas for birds, especially waterfowl that hunters enjoy, which migrate throughout the continent,” said Mike Szymanski, Game and Fish Department migratory game bird management supervisor. “When the treaty was signed, it really was an extraordinary thing. There are not many compacts like it in the world.”

According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service news release, the Migratory Bird Treaty is the foundation for significant achievements in bird conservation that followed, with both nations enacting statutes to implement its provisions. Eventually, the United States also signed treaties with Mexico, Japan and Russia as well.

Ratification of the treaty 100 years ago was significant, Szymanski said in the article, because many bird species were in trouble, and the agreement between countries initiated a movement to help in the recovery of struggling populations.

“Many species had declined because of dramatic habitat losses,” he said. “There was also unregulated take happening on many species of birds for feathers through the millinery trade, meat for restaurants, and total unregulated take on nests.”

Sandra Johnson, Game and Fish Department conservation biologist, said because birds don’t know political or geographical borders, the Migratory Bird Treaty provides a consistent commitment from the nations involved, to protect all birds that migrate through them.

“One of the success stories as a result of the treaty is the recovery of the great egret,” she said. “This large, all-white bird, with a yellow bill and black legs, was hunted to near extinction for its feathers. Now, because of the Migratory Bird Treaty, this egret was saved from extinction and even breeds in North Dakota.”

After the treaty was signed, Szymanski said hunting seasons on groups of birds were closed for a number of years. Also, as a result, carefully guided frameworks for some migratory birds, such as waterfowl, were established.

“That probably has the most impact for hunters” he said. “It really sets the sideboards for what we can do with our hunting seasons, as far as only being able to be open for migratory birds between September 1 and March 10.”

While this historic treaty is applauded a century later as a conservation coup, likely saving some migratory bird species from going extinct, Szymanski said it could also be celebrated as the catalyst for establishing other conservation efforts.


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