The second split of the Maryland duck hunting season opens tomorrow, and the immediate prospects for waterfowlers are good.
Duck populations are up, the season is longer and bag limits larger than last year, and recent below freezing weather to our north should have accelerated the southerly migration of many species.
But while the short-term outlook is bright, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is concerned that proposals on Capitol Hill could dim the long-term outlook.
"The number of ducks flying south this fall is estimated to be 80 million, up from 55 million a decade ago," USFWS Director Mollie Beattie said recently. "The bad news is that proposed Farm Bill amendments seriously threaten the conservation progress we have made recently, and our nation's wetlands and waterfowl resources."
As the result of several wetlands conservation programs and a fortuitously wet spring and early summer this year, duck populations are up 40 percent from the near-record lows of the 1980s, according to the USFWS.
And because duck numbers are up, hunting seasons and bag limits are larger also -- in many cases the most liberal in 10 years -- and the underlying reason has been the restoration of habitat, especially in the prairie pothole region in the north-central U.S.
The Agriculture Department and USFWS have worked for more than a decade to conserve and restore wetlands, and under the Conservation Reserve Program, Swampbuster and the Wetlands Reserve Program, millions of acres of wetlands have been saved.
According to the USFWS, Conservation Reserve Program lands in North Dakota and Montana supported the production of an additional 3 million ducks this year alone.
"The combination of CRP nesting habitat and the presence of numerous small wetlands still on the prairies is why, with some significant help from Mother Nature, we had the great duck population response this year," Beattie said.
Proposed cuts to these conservation programs, which provide economic incentives to farmers to leave wetlands in their natural state rather than fill and till them, would "do serious harm to the Nation's migratory birds," Beattie said.
The Wetlands Reserve Program, for example, has allowed the beginning of restoration of nearly 250,000 acres of wetlands.
Revisions to Swampbuster (Food Security Act Wetlands Conservation provision of the 1995 Farm Bill) being discussed in the U.S. Senate could exempt wetlands cropped six out of 10 years or wetlands of less than 1 acre.
In the prairie pothole region, which is the primary U.S. duck breeding area, 80 percent of the potholes are smaller than 1 acre. If those potholes were exempted, the loss in prime breeding habitat would be approximately 1.7 million acres, according to USFWS.
According to the USFWS, proposals being considered in Congress could exempt as many as 12 million acres from Swampbuster protection.
An analysis of the impact of those changes in Swampbuster predicts that fall flights of ducks arising from the prairie pothole region of the U.S. could be reduced by as much as 48 percent.
If the numbers of ducks decrease, then hunting seasons and bag limits would decrease as well.
According to USFWS projections, if the fall flight from the prairie pothole region were diminished by half, then duck hunters would face the possibility of season closures three years out of 10.
"As waterfowlers know, the duck population took a nose dive in the mid-1980s due to drought and habitat loss," Beattie said. "In response, waterfowlers supported both restrictive regulations and aggressive wetland conservation efforts.
"It has been a long road back, but we have made it largely because responsible actions of hunters and programs such as CRP, Swampbuster and the Wetlands Reserve Program have successfully conserved and restored wetlands on the prairies and elsewhere."
Once the habitat was available, the rains this spring and early summer put the finishing touches on a population boom, which the USFWS estimated in its spring breeding duck survey to be 35.9 million, the highest level since 1980.
* As Maryland opens its second split for ducks, which runs through Nov. 24, the season for black ducks remains closed until Dec. 14. Canvasbacks also are closed until Jan. 1.
All waterfowlers must have in their possession a Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (HIP) permit, federal and state waterfowl stamps and applicable hunting license.