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Waterfowl numbers good but nesting ducks got a late start

Photo by Brian Hansel Pintails sweep across a glassy pond Wednesday evening in Otter Tail County. The 2012 United States Fish and Wildlife Service spring survey shows strong duck numbers but a decline in habitat.

What do you do when it looks like your duck population is dropping but your Canada goose population is growing?

That is what the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources would like to know.

The DNR recently released their annual spring breeding waterfowl index surveys. While the number of mallard pairs held their ground, blue-winged teal and other species dropped.

The persistent mallard had a breeding population index of 225,000, to the long-term average of 226,000.

The survey estimated a breeding population of 109,000 blue-winged teal, compared with 214,000 last year. The spring survey numbers are 50 percent below the long-term average of teal.

Canvasbacks, ringbill, wood ducks, gadwalls, spoonbills and redhead numbers combined came to 135,000 - a figure 29 percent lower than last year and 24 below the long-term average.

The Minnesota DNR has a Duck Recovery Plan and a goal of attracting and holding one million birds.

"Although the survey does not estimate total duck populations in the state, the decline in this year's spring duck population index indicates we're well below our goal," DNR Wildlife Section Chief Dennis Simon said.

Mother Nature offered breeding ducks a good spring for nesting, but it was a foxy move. The breeding pairs were able to move onto their nesting grounds early, but when they arrived they did not find the habitat waiting. A lot of wetlands were dry.

"It was a very unusual spring for weather, wetland conditions and breeding waterfowl," DNR Waterfowl Specialist Steve Cordts said. "We had record warm temperatures and early ice-out by late March, but wetland conditions were extremely dry at that time."

Numbers from the national survey are good, but how many birds wing south this fall is yet to be seen. Habitat conditions in the rest of the Prairie Pothole Region were similar to Minnesota.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service kicked out its own survey July 3, which indicates a seven percent increase over last year's estimate of 45.6 million birds. The 48.6 million breeding ducks is 43 percent higher than the 1955-2010 average and only the sixth time in the survey's history the continental population has exceeded 40 million.

Cordts works with the USFWS in their survey efforts, and he is aware of how the nesting efforts are going in neighboring states.

The lack of good wetland habitat in March deceived breeding ducks. Minnesota birds pushing on to the Dakotas found that nesting conditions were not so hot there either.

Thankfully, the rains did finally come.

"We got wet here in Minnesota in the middle of May and it got wetter in June," Cordts said. "More or less the same thing happened in the Dakotas. We had a decent nesting effort this year I suspect, but it doesn't apply to every bird."

Looming as a future problem for duck breeding populations is the declining amount of habitat. Total pound counts for the United States and Canada decreased 32 percent. Conservation Reserve Acres (CRP) are presently expiring and high crop prices are encouraging farmers to put them back into production. In North Dakota, a key waterfowl breeding state CRP acres have dropped 2.3 million acres since 2007. Another 650,000 acres will be lost this season.

The Canada goose population is estimated by a helicopter survey in April. The survey came back with 434,000 birds - some 64,000 more than 2011.

DNR Wildlife Manager Don Schultz, who works out of the Fergus Falls office and is charged with keeping an eye on wildlife conditions all over Otter Tail County, has been getting calls from landowners who are having trouble with crop damage.

"We're getting a lot of reports of depredation," Schultz said. "In the case of Canada geese, you want to be able to control them."

Schultz sees the possibility of new hunting guidelines on the way.

"I would look for more liberal seasons in the future, maybe not this year, but in 2013," Schultz said.

The state presently allows hunters to take a daily bag of five Canadas during the September season and three during the regular season, which ended last year in December.

Schultz also did not rule out the idea the early Minnesota goose season could be changed to an August date in the future.