Loss of Funding Could Spell Disaster for Ducks as Drought Returns

As seasons came to a close across the nation this month, many waterfowl managers privately were giving hunters this advice: Take plenty of pictures - you might not see this many duck again for years to come.

Their concerns are real.

Not only is drought returning to the prairie potholes of North and South Dakota - the most productive duck nesting habitat in North America - but the conservation programs that have served as a cushion against the worst effects of drought are being cut, if not eliminated, by members of Congress who place a low value on conservation spending.

The concern isn't just that the loss of wet conditions will result in plummeting production this year spelling the end to the liberal regulations that have been in place since 1994.

It's that the reduction of conservation programs that once protected wetlands and upland cover during dry cycles will result in landowners plowing millions of acres, leading to a permanent loss in nesting habitat - and a permanent drop in the number of ducks.

The last Congress failed to pass a new Farm Bill, leaving funding in doubt for conservation programs critical to maintaining waterfowl populations. This includes the Conservation Reserve Program, essential for maintaining upland cover that protects nesting ducks; the North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA), the nation's primary program for conserving wetlands; and the Wetlands Reserve and Grasslands Reserve programs, key components for protecting those habitats.

Most of these programs offer landowners an economic incentive to manage land so that wildlife habitat is protected. With rising commodity prices already drawing away participants, any reduction or halt in these programs could see millions of acres of habitat given to the plow and lost forever.

That congressional failure couldn't have happened at a worse time.

A state survey showed North Dakota's fall wetlands decreased 56.6 percent last fall from 2011, continuing a dry trend that had gripped the region coming into last year, which resulted in a lower count of breeding ponds last spring. The 2012-13 regulations were not changed, because record production the previous year resulted in so many breeding pairs returning last spring, they out-weighed the slimmer breeding habitat in the formula the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses to set seasons.

That isn't likely to happen again this spring. Most waterfowl managers thought production last year was lower than 2011, which means fewer ducks will be returning this spring. And if they find far fewer temporary wetlands and ponds as expected due to the dry fall and winter, production will drop even further.

"It's hard to envision a scenario where production last year was anywhere near as good as the previous year," said John Devney, Vice President of U.S. Policy at Delta Waterfowl. "And with things as dry as they have been, barring a lot of snow and rain in the next few months, we're likely to be way down again in habitat - especially those temporary seasonal wetlands that are so important to production."

Which is where the assault on conservation spending and wetlands regulations come into the picture.

Temporary seasonal wetlands are most critical to nesting success. These inches-deep puddles that spread from the edges of permanent ponds as they swell from spring snow melt and rain explode with invertebrate production as they quickly warm with rising temperatures. These tiny critters are the primary food source that helps ducks, exhausted from the return migration, recharge the energy needed for nesting.

Unfortunately, Congress - specifically the GOP leadership in the House - has blocked repeated attempts to return protection to these types of wetlands removed by Supreme Court decisions in 2006.

"Maybe just as important, the temporary season wetlands are essential for re-nesting where a hen loses eggs to predators," Devney said.

Predation becomes an even larger problem when uplands cover isn't sufficient to disperse nests and make it harder for predators to find them. But now a primary provider of upland habitat - CRP and GRP - are on the chopping block.

"What waterfowlers need to know is that these prairies in the Dakotas are far and away the most productive duck habitat we have," Devney added. Canada has more acres of habitat, but "surveys show us most of the production is actually coming from our prairies."

"So any loss of habitat in the Dakotas has a much greater impact on production - and what a hunter will see on his pond in the fall."

Sportsmen's conservation groups such as Ducks Unlimited and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership are sending urgent pleas for sportsmen to contact their congressmen to vote to continue funding for these programs.