Mike Del Toro

Mike Del Toro

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USFWS Cancels Waterfowl Breeding Survey Due To Covid Concern

For the second straight year, safety concerns over Covid-19 have forced cancellation of the annual Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey.

The spring survey, which has been conducted every year from 1955 to 2019, is used to monitor the status of duck and goose populations in North America, as well as to set waterfowl hunting season frameworks and bag limits.

A question and answer document posted today by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service explains the reasons behind the cancellation.

“The Canadian Wildlife Service and many state and provincial agencies have again cancelled their participation in the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. In addition, the Canadian border remains closed to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey personnel, preventing us from conducting survey operations in Canada, which comprises a large portion of the surveyed area,” according to the USFWS statement. “CWS made the decision to suspend fieldwork as a result of evolving conditions related to COVID-19 in Canada. The Service (USFWS) considered the utility of conducting only the United States portion of the WBPHS and determined that lacking other data from cooperator agencies, the value of Service-collected data alone were not sufficient to justify the risk and cost associated with a partial survey in the conterminous United States.”

So what does it mean for hunting seasons this year and next?

For 2021-2022, the season frameworks and bag limits are already set, so cancellation of the 2021 survey won’t impact this season. However, the 2022-2023 season structure and bag limits could be impacted by a lack of survey data from 2021. The USFWS will rely on long-term data to set hunting seasons for 2022-2023, much like it did for this upcoming season.

“The (USFWS) fully expects to allow migratory bird hunting during the 2022-2023 hunting season. For species with missing data, the (USFWS) will carefully assess expected population abundance and growth rates and allow harvest based on projections derived from long-term data including harvest, survival and reproduction, and population models,” according to the USFWS statement. “For the general duck seasons, the (USFWS) will use the long-term data and models to predict 2021 spring abundances of ducks and habitat conditions in place of the spring 2021 data, which cannot be collected. The results from these predictions will be combined with the existing harvest strategies to determine appropriate levels of harvest for the 2022-2023 season. This will ensure the sustainability of ducks and provide hunting opportunities for the American public.”

Dr. Frank Rohwer, president and chief scientist of Delta Waterfowl, said cancellation of the survey for a second year puts waterfowl managers in a quandary, especially given the dry conditions across key duck breeding areas of the prairie pothole region this spring.

“Without the survey, we don’t have much to go on,” Rohwer said. “We base so much on that May survey data, so having the annual pond counts and breeding population is important. These are unprecedented times for waterfowl management.”

Even in the absence of breeding population data, well-regulated waterfowl hunting seasons can continue, Rohwer said.

“Ducks have incredible reproductive potential, and studies over the past 40 years have shown that hunter harvest has very little impact on the duck populations of most species,” he said.

Rohwer pointed out that the USFWS will still have age-ratio data from hunter harvest surveys, which give an indication of duck production from the previous year. For example, based on wings sent in by hunters from the 2020-2021 hunting season, managers can estimate how many young ducks were in the fall flight last year.

In addition, the USFWS intends to carry forward with the Alaska portion of the survey this spring, which will provide population and habitat conditions data to help set 2022-2023 regulations for the Pacific Flyway.

Several states also conduct annual spring waterfowl population surveys independent of the USFWS. In 2020, only North Dakota conducted its spring waterfowl survey. This spring, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Michigan are in the process of conducting state surveys. Minnesota, California and Nevada have cancelled 2021 spring waterfowl surveys in those respective states.

Summer banding operations in Canada — which include the important monitoring of arctic goose nesting populations — remain questionable at this time.

“Currently, Canada has cancelled most field operations related to monitoring, but decisions are being reviewed and reconsidered on a month-by-month basis,” according to the USFWS. “If the Service (USFWS) is unable to send banding crews to Canada this summer, like last year we plan to conduct enhanced domestic banding operations in order to maintain continuity in this important long-term database.”

For more information, contact Frank Rohwer at (888) 987-3695 or frohwer@deltawaterfowl.org.

Delta Waterfowl Foundation is The Duck Hunters Organization, a leading conservation group working to produce ducks and secure the future of duck hunting in North America. Visit Delta Waterfowl.

Read Next: Arkansas 2022-2023 Waterfowl Season Dates Set

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