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Wetland conservation, spring rains revive breeding duck populations


A few weeks ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released the results of its annual survey of breeding duck populations, saying that after a decade of intensive wetland conservation and the fortuitous spring rains of the last two years, numbers of canvasbacks, redheads and gadwalls were at record levels.

Overall, the USFWS said, the breeding population was estimated to be 35.9 million ducks, an increase of 10 percent over last year.

From that strong breeding population, Alan Wentz, group manager of conservation programs at Ducks Unlimited, estimates that the migration south this fall will be between 83 million and 93 million waterfowl.

"This coming fall's flight will be the largest ever witnessed by many of today's waterfowlers," said Matthew B. Connolly Jr., executive vice president of DU. "And with these ducks and geese will come thousands of other migrating birds."

The North American Waterfowl Management Plan, a conservation and rebuilding program agreed to by the U.S., Canada and Mexico, has goals of a breeding population of 62 million and cumulative fall flights of 100 million through the flyways. Those goals are similar to population levels of the 1970s.

"This year we are going to see substantially greater numbers of mallards, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, gadwall, canvasbacks and redheads," said Jeff Nelson, chief biologist for DU. "In the past two years, many of these birds were produced in the Dakotas thanks to record wet conditions in conjunction with huge tracts of [Conservation Reserve Program] lands."

Nelson credits the unusual rainfall, public-private habitat conservation partnerships and the 36 million acres of CRP lands equally for the resurgence of waterfowl populations.

CRP tracts are erodible farmlands that were reverted to use by wildlife in 1985 for a period of 10 years.

According to DU, those lands have prevented 700 million tons of topsoil from eroding each year and acted as runoff filters to improve water quality.

According to studies by the USFWS and DU, waterfowl nesting success tripled on CRP lands last year.

Mickey Heitmeyer, director of the Institute for Wetlands and Waterfowl Research in Memphis, said that not coincidentally the population increases of most ducks species last year and this year resemble population changes that occurred in the mid-1950s and early 1970s.

"Today's excellent habitat conditions [also] resemble those of the 1950s and 1970s, which allowed waterfowl populations to have access to abundant food, nest sites and brood rearing areas," said Heitmeyer. "The challenge to waterfowl managers is the understand the dynamic nature of habitats and populations over the long term and sustain populations in both high and low periods."

According to USFWS figures, drawn from a survey of 1.3 million square miles across the north-central U.S., western and northern Canada and Alaska, mallard breeding populations are up to 8.3 million, the highest level since 1972 and over the management plan goal of 8.1 million.

Canvasbacks were up 47 percent to 771,000. Redheads rose 36 percent to 888,000, and gadwalls were up 22 percent to 2.8 million.

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