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Dennis Anderson: Ducks shortchanged, not short-stopped
Dennis Anderson
Star Tribune

Published Feb. 21, 2003 ANDY21


Oct. 20 is a date I remember well.

Dawn broke cold and heavily overcast. A cold wind blew from the north. Snow slanted from a low, gray sky.

In Minnesota, a perfect duck hunting morning.

Or so my young son, Trevor, and I hoped.

We were north and west of Willmar, in what traditionally has been one of the state's best areas for autumn overflights of mallards, widgeon, gadwall and teal, as well as the divers: bluebills, redheads and canvasbacks.

Having met up with a couple of friends, we shuffled to blinds on a pass that separated a large marsh from a small lake. There we loaded our guns, looked to the sky and waited.

It wasn't that long ago that a Minnesota waterfowler afield on Oct. 20 could count on taking a few birds, even a limit, within an hour or two. If he (or she) were lucky, a mallard or other dabbler might be among these. But typically the peak of the diver migration through Minnesota occurs about the third week of October. So usually the bag would feature bluebills, redheads and, along the Mississippi River, canvasbacks.

But Minnesota duck hunting has changed -- mostly because ducks in the state are ever fewer.

So marked is the decrease in duck numbers in the state that some experienced waterfowlers -- Don (Duckman) Helmeke of the Twin Cities is one -- in recent years haven't fired a shot on opening day.

Still, when Trevor and I awoke that cold Sunday last October and made our way to the truck to exercise the dogs, we couldn't help but think that on this cold autumn morning, ducks -- eager to seek warmer climes down South -- would fly.

So we waited.

And waited.

Finally, when it became apparent the morning would be another in a long string of Minnesota duck hunting disappointments, we headed home. Few ducks seen, no shots fired, the dog still dry.

But it's not news to report that Minnesota duck hunting isn't what it once was.

The news is that, last fall, Minnesota waterfowlers weren't the only ones who saw fewer ducks. Southern duck hunters, particularly those in Louisiana and Arkansas, had the same complaint.

Many of those waterfowlers, looking for someone to blame, cast an eye north, saying hunters up here somehow short-stopped "their" birds, keeping them from flying to their traditional wintertime haunts.

Right.

To their credit, Louisiana and Arkansas waterfowl managers have explained quite specifically what forces combined last fall to produce so (relatively) few birds in those states.

Weather peculiarities were partly to blame. So was a lack of quality habitat, particularly in Louisiana, where two major tropical storm systems last year compromised the duck-carrying capacity of large swaths of coastal wetlands.

The fact that ducks experienced poor production on northern prairies this summer and a greater proportion of birds that flew south were adults also reduced hunter success throughout the Mississippi Flyway.

But problems cited in an Arkansas report about duck hunting in that state underscore challenges duck hunters face throughout North America.

These challenges won't go away anytime soon.

Consider:

• In the past 10 years, the number of Arkansas waterfowl hunters has risen from 39,000 to 95,000, with increases also in commercial hunt clubs and non-resident hunters. (Increases during the same period in hunter numbers also were recorded in other states where ducks congregate, including North Dakota.)

• Average days hunted per active adult in Arkansas have increased from 10.38 in 1976-80 to 14.52 in 1996-2000.

• The mallard harvest in Arkansas increased between 1976-1980 and 1996-2000 from 523,160 to 871,100. The average total duck harvest in Arkansas for the same period was up 50 percent.

The upshot: If ducks (and duck hunting) are to be saved, not only must more and better habitat be made available to them where they nest and winter, hunter pressure on ducks in those areas must be mitigated.

Minnesotans can do their part by beginning the hard work of restoring biological integrity to the state's relative handful of remaining wetlands -- no small task considering many of them in recent decades have been recast as storm-water holding ponds.

If that task were completed, Minnesota hunters could again hunt ducks near their homes.

Note to Southern waterfowlers:

We're not short-stopping your ducks.

We're shortchanging them.

And have been for a long time.

-- Dennis Anderson is at [email protected].
 
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