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Duck numbers bounce back after droughts
By Chris Niskanen
St. Paul Pioneer Press

Drought conditions have significantly eased in the Dakotas and Canada's prairie provinces, giving a much-needed boost to North America's duck population, waterfowl biologists say.

Breeding duck estimates for Canada and the United States were up 16 percent from last year, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife report released Thursday. Mallard populations were about the same as last year.

The news reflects a dramatic turnaround in drought conditions. Timely spring rains fell through much of the northern continent's prairie region, providing ducks with critical water during the nesting season.

"It was amazing the water came back so quickly," said Tom Landwehr, Minnesota conservation director for Ducks Unlimited. "Since the rain came just before spring migration, it saved the day."

Although duck population surveys still show some declines in the Dakotas, populations appear to have dodged a long-term drought that waterfowl managers feared.

"If you'd asked me a couple of months ago how things look, I would have said pretty dismal," said Joel Brice, a waterfowl biologist with the Bismarck, N.D.-based Delta Waterfowl Foundation. "All in all, conditions are quite good for ducks."

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department reported last week that the 2003 duck index was down 27 percent from last year, but the number probably wasn't an accurate picture of duck numbers because last year's record-breaking index counted birds that were still migrating through the state.

This year's mallard index in North Dakota was 187 percent above the long-term average since 1948, and all other species, except for green-winged teal and canvasbacks, were above the long-term average.

More important, the number of ponds in North Dakota was up 48 percent from last year and 58 percent above the long-term average, mostly a result of rains that boosted shallow and temporary wetlands this spring.

Minnesota's duck news is mixed. The Department of Natural Resources reported recently that the state's mallard breeding population dropped 23 percent from last year, but was still 29 percent above the average since 1968. Blue-winged teal dropped 55 percent from last year and were 15 percent below the long-term average.

Minnesota's Canada goose population estimate of 304,000 was down from 335,000 last year, but still exceeded population management goals.

Good water conditions exist in South Dakota, western Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta, which bodes well for duck production.

"Data on breeding duck populations from Canada and other states is not yet available, but preliminary reports suggest generally good conditions in the Dakotas, and much better conditions and duck numbers in prairie Canada than we have seen in the past few years," said Jeff Lawrence, a Minnesota waterfowl biologist.

Biologists are still compiling survey data and preparing to make season recommendations later this summer. Last week's Fish and Wildlife report gives a strong indication that duck seasons and regulations may not change this year.

"I wouldn't say it's a lock, but it seems pretty likely we'll have the same framework as last year," Landwehr said.

For Minnesota, that means a 60-day season opening either on Sept. 27 or Oct. 4. North Dakota is proposing opening its season Sept. 27 for residents and Oct. 4 for nonresidents.

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