Inside the Outdoors: Like Charlie Brown, Minnesota duck hunters want to believe

Body: 

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently announced the results of its 2018 spring breeding duck survey. It found that overall duck numbers were up 9 percent from 2017, 14 percent above the average over the last 10 years, and 12 percent above the long-term average over the last 50 years.

Over a 2-week period in May, biologists surveyed key wetland areas via low-level flights with small aircraft, and other areas from the ground, counting ducks, geese and swans. The data was compiled not only by DNR staff, but U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service personnel. The results are posted online at the DNR web site, at https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/recreation/hunting/waterfowl/waterfowl_sur.... It should be added that the DNR cautions that a number of variables make these estimates just that, with some margin for error.

These are not "salad years" for Minnesota duck hunters. But good hunting or poor, there is still optimism. There is a certain Charlie Brown-like quality in the most avid. Like Charlie Brown, who each year trusts Lucy not to pull the football away when he tries to kick it — but always does — we expect that the duck hunting season to come will somehow turn out well. That doesn't mean we have to harvest bag limits often, or ever. But we want to see ducks, to know that they are around. Many of us would rather have a day in the marsh when we see 100 ducks and bag two, than see six ducks and bag them all. But there have been too many years of late when the season concludes with duck hunters feeling comradeship with Charlie Brown.

So, when the DNR announces that overall duck numbers counted this spring are 9 percent above 2017, who can blame us if our hearts skip a beat, and we're not all that disappointed that we've just turned the calendar page to August — that much closer to the duck hunting season?

A lot can happen between May when those potential breeding ducks were counted, and when they and their offspring could be flying over our decoys in September or October. Heavy rains can flood nests. Skunks and foxes can raid them. Northern pike, eagles and even great blue herons can gobble up ducklings. Temporary wetlands may dry out before a brood is hatched and able to waddle its way to permanent water to complete their maturing.

But good news is still good news. Better to hear that in May there was a measured increase over last year's breeding duck numbers than to hear the reverse. One reason for continued optimism is that much of the state has had significant rainfall from spring through summer. Not all, but much of the state. In those places, the temporary wetlands that augment the permanent marshes and shallow waterfowl lakes are a bonus that can contribute to an upward spike in fall duck numbers.

The DNR freely admits that its survey is designed in favor of counting mallards, which are generally the species harvested in greatest numbers during any given Minnesota duck season. Blue-winged teal are almost always among the top three. The 2018 survey estimated mallard breeding numbers to be 18 percent above the 10-year average, and 30 percent above the long-term average. Blue-winged teal were estimated at 16 percent above the 10-year average, but 10 percent below the long-term average.

The broad category of "other ducks" includes species that commonly nest in the parts of Minnesota where the survey work was done. Among them are wood ducks, ring-necked ducks — "ringbills" — canvasbacks, redheads, gadwalls and others. These collectively were counted in numbers 21 percent below the 2017 estimate, but 15 percent above the long-term average.

As optimistic as duck hunters want to be, there are other numbers that cast a slightly different light on the 2018 survey outcomes. The DNR report included a graph much like the kind that would chart the peaks and valleys of the stock market. This graph of Minnesota's "duck market" has many peaks and valleys. As optimistic as the 2018 figures look, there have been years in which the estimated spring duck breeding population was much higher.

In 2001 or 2002 (the DNR's online graph is not detailed enough to clearly show which), the estimated breeding duck population was just under 1.2 million birds, almost 50 percent greater than the 800,000 estimated this past May. In 1994 it was roughly 1.1 million birds. In the very early 1990's, and again in 2003 or 2004 — again, hard to tell a precise year from the graph — there were about 1 million breeding birds estimated.

The exact years are less relevant than the fact that in four separate years between the early 1990's and 2004, Minnesota breeding ducks were estimated at 1 million or more. There may be good reasons for those high numbers, reasons not explained in this survey. But unless they are in some way unreliable, one fact remains. It has taken numerous down years since then to lower the average and make this year's estimate look good. Substantially lower breeding duck numbers are clustered in the last dozen years or so, a period during which — perhaps not entirely coincidence — the number of Minnesota duck hunters has dropped dramatically.

The 2018 spring breeding duck count announced at 800,000 birds seems like good news compared to years with estimates a low as 450,000. But 14 percent above a 10-year average may not be a big improvement when that decade included numerous years when hunters were more than a little disappointed.

Charlie Brown would know how many of them felt.