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Inside the Outdoors: 2017 could be a perfect storm of bad duck policy

The 2017 hunting framework, with season length and daily bag limits being the most anticipated, were known months ago. That's because since 2015 the federal agency responsible for managing ducks and geese and those who hunt them has mothballed what was previously an important tool in setting annual hunting rules. That tool was the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's annual midsummer count and assessment of the year's nesting successes; or, just as important, nesting failures. PineandLakes.com Illustration

This year will be remembered for hurricane and tropical storm-generated destruction on a scale that is hard for landlocked Minnesotans to imagine. We are hit by tornadoes with some regularity, and those who live or have businesses located in floodplains — like the Red River Valley in Northwest Minnesota, and the bluff country of the Southeast — are occasionally victims of flooding. But to our good fortune the loss and suffering we experience here are orders of magnitude less than U.S. coastal areas hit by hurricanes and tropical storms.

Given the timing and seriousness of these recent events, an apology may be in order for using a storm metaphor in an everyday context. If so, apology tendered. Every once in a while an expression is coined and thereafter takes on a life of its own, and is used in situations that have nothing whatever to do with the original event. "Perfect storm" is such an expression.

It was first used to describe a 1991 convergence of weather systems in the North Atlantic that grew to amazing strength, not only causing coastal storm damage in the Northeast, but racing all the way inland as far as Minnesota where in some places it dumped more than 30 inches of snow. The storm also took a number of lives, most publicized of which were the crew of a commercial sword fishing boat. They and their boat were immortalized first in the book The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger, then in a movie of that title starring George Clooney.

Since that time the expression "perfect storm" has become a common expression in everyday speech, meaning that events or circumstances have combined or come together in such a way as to be extraordinarily or uncommonly bad.

In less than two weeks the general 2017 waterfowl hunting season will begin, the magic day for what many of us call "the duck opener," September 23rd. It is not technically the opener for all waterfowl hunting because the early goose season began September 2nd. September 9th was the special youth waterfowl hunt for young hunters age 15 and under, a recruitment effort intended to expose them to the sport under less pressure and competitiveness than are characteristic of the general waterfowl opener.

The 2017 hunting framework, with season length and daily bag limits being the most anticipated, were known months ago. That's because since 2015 the federal agency responsible for managing ducks and geese and those who hunt them has mothballed what was previously an important tool in setting annual hunting rules. That tool was the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's annual midsummer count and assessment of the year's nesting successes; or, just as important, nesting failures.

That tool is no longer being used, reasons cited including personnel cost, and pressure on the agency to conduct summer bird counts and speedily come up with the year's hunting rules so states can timely announce them before their seasons begin. Under the new procedure, data from the prior fall and the current spring are used. There is no connection between the fall hunting rules and that year's nesting success. Since the majority of ducks bagged in a typical year are juveniles, knowing the year's nesting success is of major importance. Or would be, if USFWS still counted these juveniles.

One of the feeblest explanations for using old data and releasing hunting rules early was that it would allow hunters extra time to plan their hunting trips. As if knowing how many ducks one can legally shoot is more important than knowing how many ducks there really are — and how many can be safely harvested without "killing the goose that lays the golden egg." Also in the USFWS calculus is the assumption that populations will even out over the long term; a dangerous assumption, in the opinion of many.

So what is the perfect storm that is to be worried about? Just this: 2017 has been a monumental year for drought in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, reaching up across the U.S.-Canada border to southern portions of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. These areas just happen to be among the most important North American nurseries for waterfowl, ducks in particular.

Official ratings of "extreme drought," "severe drought," or "exceptional drought" cover more than half of North and South Dakota, and range up into the western Canadian "duck factory" provinces. If, as in the recent past, USFWS was doing a credible job of projecting the year's nesting success with its midsummer survey, it's highly probable that we would be seeing shorter seasons and reduced bag limits.

The USFWS does have the ability to invoke an upon-further-revue contingency, and depart from its new procedure for setting the year's rules. But there have been no hints or leaks to the effect that this is being considered. All the USFWS has told us so far is that there were good duck numbers and favorably wet conditions in early 2017. That is definitely, disappointingly and perhaps even tragically, old news.

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