Record Waterfowl Numbers Could Drop If Drought Comes to Prairie Pothole Region

story by Trey Iles, LDWF Public Information

Larry Reynolds is a stats guy. He brings to mind a Major League Baseball analytics expert who can tell you the average of every left-handed power hitter on Thursdays during a full moon.

But Reynolds sticks to one subject when applying his expertise in statistics - waterfowl. For 11 years as the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Waterfowl Program Leader, Reynolds has become an expert at compiling stats on waterfowl then deciphering what they mean to the state’s duck and geese hunters. It can be confusing stuff for those who didn’t come away with good grades in math.

Fortunately, Reynolds makes it easy to understand. And Reynolds’ latest calculations indicate some potentially bad news. There could be fewer ducks in the Mississippi Flyway in the coming years.

Since 2010, breeding duck populations in North America have reached record numbers three times. In 2015, 48.4 million were counted, an all-time record in the 61 years the totals have been compiled. Numbers were down slightly in 2016, to about 47 million. But that’s still 38 percent better than the long-term average.

The primary reason for the healthy populations is simple. Excessive precipitation in the northern breeding grounds in the north central United States and Canada in recent years and above average wetness for most of the last 23 years have produced abundant fertile wetlands for nesting ducks and geese.

But Reynolds and most experts in his field believe a drought in those areas is imminent. That will lead to less productive breeding grounds and, consequently, fewer ducks.

“The last two years, we’ve seen fewer ponds on surveyed breeding areas,’’ said Reynolds, who noted there were declines of 17 percent and 21 percent in the last two years, although pond totals remain at about the long-term average. “It appears we may be entering the dry cycle, and with associated loss of grassland nesting habitat, we are poised for a decline.’’

It’s expected that the plentiful rains that have produced the healthy duck populations are about to dry up, Reynolds said. It’s just part of the cycle of weather. It’s happened many times before, probably even prior to when biologists started keeping data in 1955.

Reynolds said the noticeable thing about duck populations is they trend in a certain direction for a period of years. They don’t go high one year then low the next. The consistent element during the upward trends has been water on the breeding grounds.

And at the other end of the spectrum, drought drives the numbers down.

“When the water returns to the prairies, the population comes back,’’ Reynolds said. “The drought breaks and the population goes up.’’

What concerns Reynolds and many other duck experts, however, is the loss of precious breeding habitat in those areas. Two key developments have happened in the last few years that have depleted prime breeding grounds in the United States.

First, with very high commodity prices until a couple of years ago, fewer land owners renewed their conservation reserve contracts so they could plant more grain. Those contracts pay yearly rental payments in exchange for removing environmentally sensitive land from agriculture production and to plant species that improve environmental quality.

Both native and reestablished grasslands have been increasingly converted to row-crop agriculture, leaving less grassland cover for nesting ducks.

Second, U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2001 and 2006 weakened legal protection for small wetlands under the Clean Water Act. This has led to increased drainage of the small wetlands so valuable to nesting ducks in the prairie pothole region of the north central United States.

The situation in Canada is worse than in the United States. Canada lacks wetland protections like the Clean Water Act, which had greatly reduced wetland loss in the United States and compensated for much of it through mitigation and wetland restoration.

In Canada, wetlands continue to be lost to agricultural drainage, and that loss represents the major limiting factor to waterfowl reproduction. Protecting existing wetlands and restoring drained wetlands is a major reason why LDWF dedicated funding through statute has focused on obtaining land in the Great White North.

“The thing that we value most is perpetual wetland protection,’’ Reynolds said about determining how to use funding. “That’s the game in Canada. You can buy a perpetual easement in Canada for cheap; about one-fifth the cost in the United States. But it can be tough to find willing sellers. Even the real conservation-oriented people in Canada say, ‘I’m not going to tie my land up forever. I’ll lease it to you for 10, 25 years.’ They look for flexibility.’’

Reynolds said the breeding grounds in Canada and the north central United States are under assault.

“And if we are headed for a dry cycle then the effect of this lost breeding habitat is multiplied,’’ Reynolds said. “Most experts believe that we are positioned for one of the biggest declines in duck population because we’ve lost so much grassland habitat.

“These last three or four years with all the rain we’ve had on the prairie breeding grounds we haven’t seen the negative impacts of the loss of grasslands because many farmers haven’t been able to put in their crops. That land has become nesting cover where there isn’t water, and wetlands where there is. We’ve been saved the last couple of years by extremely high precipitation.’’

Reynolds said the point was hammered home for him two years ago when he made a trip to Saskatchewan, Canada, to monitor work LDWF was paying Ducks Unlimited to do through the department’s dedicated funds.

As he passed a large canola field, Reynolds said he noticed the canola stalks from two seasons before.

“Canola has a real fibrous stalk,’’ Reynolds said. “You could see it at the high end of the field. But at the low end, it looked like an intermediate marsh here in Louisiana. It’s because when water gets on the landscape it quickly returns to wetland habitat.’’

The danger of losing productive breeding ground underscores the importance of dedicated funding for development and preservation of that land by LDWF. Ten percent of LDWF hunting license sales goes to dedicated funding for that purpose.

The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission entered into a three-year cooperative agreement with Ducks Unlimited in November 2015. DU will receive approximately $320,000 in each of three consecutive fiscal years, including 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18, that is to be used for protecting, restoring and enhancing breeding habitat for migratory waterfowl on important breeding grounds in Saskatchewan, Canada.

In addition, Ducks Unlimited is using the money provided by LDWF to match a North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant that significantly increases the amount available for conservation.

It’s no surprise that duck populations will dive. What’s important is to make sure enough breeding habitat will be around when the rains begin to fall again, Reynolds said.

“For ducks, change is absolutely required,’’ Reynolds said. “If you stabilize water level on a prairie pothole, year after year after year, it becomes unproductive, and won’t raise many ducks. The productivity of those prairie wetlands depends on the cycle of wet and dry periods. Wetlands are dynamic systems, and ducks depend on them, so duck populations have to be dynamic as well. They will go up and down.’’

That’s why periodic drought is actually a good thing, Reynolds said. But it’s important to make sure wetlands are still present when the drought breaks.

“For us to spend $1 million during a three-year period on wetlands that dry up and don’t produce any ducks in some years is still rock solid conservation,’’ Reynolds said. “It’s going to get wet again. What we need is for that wetland to be there when the wet period returns. We need that landscape of wetland basins and expansive grassland to maintain a healthy duck population.’’




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