Louisiana Has An Important Seat On The Waterfowl Breeding And Habitat Survey

story by TRey Iles, LDWF Public Information

Business travelers only wish they could log the frequent flyer miles that James Whitaker racks up during the month of May. Alas, Whitaker, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist, isn’t flying commercial. Not hardly.

When you fly the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, or BPOP Survey for short, the hours are long and airports are remote. Pilots on the survey sometimes have to navigate around wayward moose that have wandered onto the gravel tarmacs.

Not exactly a glorious way to experience air travel. But if you’re a Louisiana waterfowl hunter, it’s exactly where you want Whitaker. His job on this detail is to count breeding waterfowl and assess habitat where ducks breed in the Prairie Pothole, Parkland and Boreal Forest regions of the United States and Canada.

Along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service, U.S. state agencies, Canadian provincial wildlife agencies and other participants, this group measures the pulse of waterfowl breeding and habitat conditions that are vital to maintaining healthy populations of the various duck species.

And because Louisiana is a waterfowl hunting hotbed, it’s essential information for state sportsmen and women who enjoy going after duck and geese.

“The key thing is this survey is designed to monitor and track trends over time,’’ Whitaker said. “Not only of breeding waterfowl but also of habitat conditions.”

It is a huge job, literally and figuratively. The BPOP survey covers 2.1 million square miles in the United States and Canada and includes 55,000 miles of transect. It started experimentally in 1947 but the same transect lines have been flown since 1955.

“You cannot understate the importance of this survey,’’ said Larry Reynolds, LDWF’s waterfowl program manager. “Because of the size, the scope, the scientific validity, the statistical soundness and the length of time that this has been done, it provides an unparalleled tool for managing a resource that utilizes habitats across North America. Louisiana has always had a major role in monitoring and maintaining waterfowl populations. So it’s a good thing that James is getting on those planes.’’

Whitaker, who also flies the fall inventory of the mid-continent Greater White-fronted Goose survey in Canada and the mid-winter survey of ducks and geese in Louisiana, made his debut on the BPOP survey last May. The survey team is made up of nine aerial crews and 18 ground crews. Each aerial crew includes a pilot biologist from the USFWS and an observer, Whitaker’s role.

The ground crews are important, too, Whitaker said, as not everything can be seen from the air. Most of the ground crews are based in the Prairie Pothole Region, which includes the Dakotas, Montana, southern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba. That’s considered the heart of waterfowl breeding grounds.

Whitaker was part of the survey crew responsible for the northern Boreal Forest, northern Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba. Unlike the Prairie Pothole Region, these areas are accessible only by the air. It’s also the largest region for any aerial crew, more than 250,000 square miles.

“It’s a massive landscape,’’ Whitaker said.

Most waterfowl hunters know about the Prairie Pothole Pegion and focus attention on the counts and weather from those areas. But they may not realize how important the Parklands and Boreal Forest in Canada are to waterfowl.

For frame of reference, the province of Saskatchewan is 600 miles long north to south. The first 150 miles from the U.S. border north in Saskatchewan is considered prairie. The middle 150 miles is the Parklands region, a transition zone between the Prairie and the northern forested region. The remaining 300 miles - or 50 percent - is considered Boreal Forest or bush region. Only 5 percent of Saskatchewan’s residents live in the Boreal Forest, so it’s remote territory.

“The Prairie Pothole Region is considered the heart of breeding waterfowl habitat areas,’’ Whitaker said. “It’s known as the primary duck breeding factory. But, it’s important to note that it’s feast or famine in the prairies. If you do have some extremely dry years, as time progresses, you can lose breeding habitat.’’

That’s not necessarily the case in the Boreal Forest, Whitaker said. It’s a more stable habitat without the drastic effects of wet and dry cycles in weather.

“The Boreal Forest may take years and years to see any significant change in habitat conditions,’’ Whitaker said. “Although breeding waterfowl have far lower reproductive success in the Boreal habitats, the landscape is so large, that waterfowl populations can be sustained at lower levels during times of poor habitat conditions in the prairies. So, if habitat is not available in the prairies, waterfowl have the ability to go further north or overfly the prairies.

“It’s also the most species rich landscape. I counted more than 20 different species of waterfowl in the Boreal Forest. It’s a unique place to survey.’’

The survey generally begins in May and takes approximately 20 days, depending on the weather. It can run into the first week of June, especially on Whitaker’s leg of the survey. There are fewer weather stations farther north in Canada which can affect the survey day to day because of a lack of accurate weather forecasts.

“You’re flying approximately 100 mph about 125 feet off the ground,’’ said Whitaker, who was aboard a Quest Kodiak single engine turboprop-powered plane. “There is no deviation on that. No shortcuts. All transect lines are flown under those conditions.’’

Whitaker is a veteran of surveying waterfowl, and also tracks migratory birds from aircraft as well. But he said the BPOP survey is entirely different from those done by LDWF when counting wintering waterfowl in the state during fall and winter.

“You’re not counting large concentrations of waterfowl, as we do on the wintering grounds,’’ Whitaker said. “We’re interested in the breeding pairs during the spring. That’s what is used in setting overall bag limits for all flyways in the United States.’’

So what news did the survey deliver last May? The conditions in the prairie regions are somewhat drier, especially in the Dakotas and Montana. Drier conditions were observed this spring than in 2016.

“But it has been so wet for several consecutive years that it may take a while to see some adverse trend on the waterfowl breeding populations,’’ Whitaker said.

Reynolds said the total ducks recorded in the survey was about the same (47.3 million) as 2016, which is 34 percent above the long term average, a healthy sign. That means a 16-day September teal season with a six-bird daily bag limit in 2018 as well as a 60-day regular season with a six-duck daily bag limit.

Reynolds said it is vital to Louisiana’s interests to have a representative on the survey. It’s more than just counting ducks and evaluating habitat, both important parts of the equation, to be sure.

“Louisiana overwinters and typically harvests more ducks than any other state in the Mississippi Flyway,’’ Whitaker said. “So this is important to Louisiana’s sportsmen and women. They want to know what the outlook is for waterfowl during hunting season.

“But equally important is the knowledge that waterfowl are managed over a very large scale. We don’t manage it in just coastal Louisiana or the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Waterfowl don’t recognize state or parish/county boundaries, and use habitats up and down the Flyway. We want to be able to tell our constituents what we see on the breeding grounds, how we expect it will affect you during the upcoming season and how we can better manage the resource in the years to come based on the survey information.’’


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