Down, Not Out

Published on Wednesday, 17 July 2013 22:54 - Written by By Steve Knight Outdoor Writer

No one ever said anything the federal government does ever makes a lot of sense.

Take raising the early season teal limit from four to six and the possession limit from two day’s daily bag to three this year. Wouldn’t you think changes like that would come in years when the blue-winged teal population was moving up in historic highs?

Not the case. The number of blue-winged teal, the earliest duck arriving in Texas making it the most likely September-season target, has actually declined from a year ago. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Waterfowl Breeding Survey, bluewing numbers are down 16 percent from a record 9.2 million, but remain 60 percent above the long-term average.

Duck numbers almost overall are down in this year’s survey, but according to biologists it is not statistically enough to matter. This year’s overall count of 10 species was 45.6 million, down 6 percent from a year ago, but still 33 percent above the long-term average.

“There is maybe a little surprise in the decline,” said Kevin Kraai, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s waterfowl program leader. “The Dakotas have not been in as good condition as they have the last couple of years. We depended almost 100 percent on Canada.”

And that was almost a dangerous situation because before going into a winter with a lot of snow, Canada’s prairies had been dry.

The important thing to hunters is that mallard numbers remain over 10 million. Down just 2 percent from a year ago, the 10.37 million count assures that hunters during the regular season will again be looking at a 74-day season and six-duck bag limit, although there could be some changes among two of the lesser-important species to Texans.

Mallards are the benchmark species from which overall seasons are determined. A change to a limited or restrictive season would come if mallard numbers were to dip below 8 million and overall pond counts in the breeding grounds of the U.S. and Canada declined significantly.

While important to the season length, the reality in Texas is that mallards are only the third-most common bird in hunters’ bags.

“Mallards are No. 3. First is a combination of the teal (bluewings and greenwings), second are gadwalls and then mallards,” Kraai said. He added that with about a million ducks taken annually, Texas fits in the top four big waterfowl states, trailing California and Louisiana, and running neck-and-neck with Arkansas.

Kraai said the drop in bluewings was certainly a surprise. The species had seen back-to-back record production years. He said the decline could be a precursor of things to come.

“There is a real concern. There have been some extreme land-use changes, especially in the Dakotas. Because of ethanol production, grasslands are being changed to cropland. When Canada gets their drought, which they haven’t had in a while, we are going to be in dire straits. The Dakotas may be forever changed because of grasslands being changed to corn crops,” Kraai said.

He explained that North and South Dakota have traditionally been key states to teal and other duck productions. Kraai said if the Dakotas continue to convert to farmland, then production may be totally dependent on conditions north of the border.

“Canada isn’t changing as quickly, but some day we may see enough changes where we don’t have a 74-day season. We may see it soon. Maybe in the next four years,” Kraai said.

Some duck hunters today have never experienced a reduced season and bag limit. The six-duck, 74-day season was first instituted in 1997. It was the longest season East Texas hunters had seen since 1958, and the biggest bag limit since a point system was phased out in 1984. Before 1997, hunters had had a season of 60 days or less.

“There are hunters in this day and age that have no experience with restrictive limits, but they are going to see them,” Kraai warned.

This year, wigeon and canvasbacks are the only two species populations that were on the positive side. Kraai said canvasback numbers were at a point last year where the Service could have increased the daily limit on the duck to two, but didn’t. He said an increase is possible again this year. Canvasback numbers are 37 percent above the long-term average.

On the flip side is scaup, whose population dropped 20 percent this summer. Kraai said there is a possibility that there could be a reduction in the daily limit on the birds this year.

Gadwall numbers slipped 7 percent and greenwings are down 12, but both are still well above the long-term average for the species.

Have a comment or opinion on this story? Contact outdoor writer Steve Knight by email at outdoor@tylerpaper.com. Follow Steve Knight on Facebook at TylerPaper Outdoors and on Twitter @tyleroutdoor.