Waterfowl numbers remain historically high

A flock of blue-winged teal ducks fly near Pierre recently.

South Dakota waterfowl hunters are in for another year of extraordinarily high duck and goose populations, game managers say.

Goose hunters are likely to have a particularly good year as bag limits for the August management and September early goose seasons were raised from 8 birds a day to 15, Monday at the July Game, Fish and Parks Commission meeting in Pierre. The regular season’s daily limit was also proposed to be raised from 3 to 5. Duck hunters also received positive news as GFP biologists proposed to raise the bag limit on redhead ducks from 2 per day to 3.

After several years of high water levels and an abundance of seasonal wetlands duck populations have risen to unprecedented levels. Current population estimates put resident duck numbers well above 12 million birds, a full 162 percent above the long-term average. Resident Canada goose numbers have also continued to rise. This year’s breeding population estimate climbed from around 240,000 in 2011 to 267,000 this year.

The high number of ducks, and especially geese, in South Dakota has led the state to consider a few changes to its waterfowl season. The resident Canada goose population is especially troublesome because of the damage that the large birds are known to cause to crops as well as other resources – Game, Fish and Parks has received a total of 945 complaints about geese so far this year.

Canada geese have become a big enough problem to cause South Dakota to implement a number of measures designed to control their numbers.

South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Senior Waterfowl Biologist Rocco Murano said that exploding Canada goose populations are not just a South Dakota problem. Indeed, greater Canada geese have been the beneficiaries of several environmental and social trends. The loss of grassland habitat combined with an increase in the acreage of corn and soybean crops planted on or near wetlands provided excellent goose nesting habitat.

“Geese don’t require grass for nesting,” Murano said. “If you surround a wetland with crops they do really well.”

Another factor that has contributed to the increased goose population is a decline in the number of goose hunters. Hunters are one of the primary tools used to manage wildlife populations. South Dakota along with the Central Flyway Council and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, both of which help govern migratory bird management, has created a number of new seasons designed to encourage hunters to harvest more geese. Those measures include the August management season and the September early goose season.

Duck numbers have also exploded; some of the biggest beneficiaries have been diver ducks like redheads and canvasbacks. They, like Canada geese, are over water nesters and don’t require grass for nesting. Redhead numbers have risen high enough for the GFP Wildlife Dvision to ask the commission to raise the bag limit on that species from two to three per day.

“We’re well above the 10-year average,” Murano told the GFP commission.

Dabbler ducks have also seen a population bump in recent years. Blue-winged teal account for as many as 4.8 million of the ducks 12.4 million ducks in South Dakota. Mallards, gadwall, pintails and northern shovelers account for most of the rest of the duck population.

“My guess is, that duck hunting is going to be phenomenal this year,” Murano said.

The news isn’t all good for duck hunters, however. South Dakota has the potential to see almost 200,000 Conservation Reserve Program acres lost to expired contracts. Most duck species rely on grassy areas to nest in. The loss of that habitat has potential to bring populations down significantly. Also the wetlands ducks feed in are suffering from a lack of adequate moisture and are shrinking. That in itself isn’t necessarily bad, but it could have a negative impact on duck numbers.

“Wetlands drawdown isn’t bad, it’s necessary,” Murano said. “So long as it’s temporary.”

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