Duck Numbers Strong, But Congress Weak on Habitat Protection

With apologies to Mr. Dickens, these are the best of times and worst of times for America's waterfowlers.

Sportsmen like me who think the half-hour before sunrise is the best time of the day have been thrilled by this recent news from the prairie breeding grounds. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the number of breeding pairs is the second-highest on record,
and late moisture has resulted in plenty of water for them to get their jobs done on the potholes.

The overall count in the core habitat areas for 10 key species was 45.6 million, down slightly from last year's record 48.575. Eight of the species showed declines, from two percent for mallards, which is considered statistically insignificant, to a worrisome 20 percent for scaup, a bird that remains 17 percent below its long-term average.

But this is the third year in a row all the breeding factors have been excellent, so sportsmen can look forward to another huge fall flight.

Unfortunately, this is also the third year in a row that many of the conservation programs that make those duck numbers possible are being held hostage as congress plays political football with the Farm Bill. That landmark legislation includes the Conservation Reserve, Wetlands Reserve, and Grasslands Reserve programs, the foundation for preserving wetlands and uplands waterfowl habitat on private lands--which is where the overwhelming majority of ducks are produced.

The Senate passed a Farm Bill last year but the House did not, forcing members to scramble to pass an extension of the old bill--leaving planning for many key programs in doubt, a clear signal to landowners to look for other ways to make their property pay.

This year the Senate came through again, passing a bill that included two key features the sportsmen community has been pushing for: Re-linking eligibility for taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance to a farmer's compliance with conservation programs, and a national Sod Saver initiative, which would see farmers losing subsidies if they broke ground that has yet to be plowed.

But the bad boys in the House struck again, first killing their Farm Bill. Then, last week, representatives passed a bill that doesn't include funding for food stamps--a ploy guaranteeing it won't meet muster in the Senate. While the bill did have funding for most conservation programs, it made Sod Saver regional--putting some states in, leaving others out.

For conservation leaders like Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall, the mess in congress was almost enough to take the joy out of the duck numbers.

"What we've got is two different sides (in Congress) taking shots at each other, and all these really important programs just hanging," he said. If we can get these things into a conference committee with the Senate, (where members of both houses sit down and compromise on final language), there's a chance we can fix a lot of it--including Sod Saver. It has to be national, or farmers in one part of the country will feel like they're being treated differently--and they will be."

Last week that seemed unlikely, as some House members said they wouldn't support a conference with the Senate. But late Tuesday word filtered from the Capitol that the House did send its bill to the Senate.

If a compromise isn't reached, Congress will almost certainly pass another extension. While that will keep most programs alive, it won't allow managers to aggressively push their enrollments, and that means millions of acres of waterfowl habitat could be lost to the plow.

Eventually, that will catch up to the number of birds returning too nesting grounds. Then we'll only have the worst of times.

CC image from Flickr