Fall is not exactly upon us, but a corner was turned with the summer solstice on June 20. And—though some might prefer not to be reminded—the amount of daylight has begun to gradually diminish, day by day. Less astronomically accurate was a measure that my now-retired teacher spouse used to gauge the waning of summer. With the arrival of the Fourth of July, she began anticipating the approach of Labor Day, and with it the start of the next school year. “Summer is practically over,” she would declare ruefully. An obvious exaggeration, but even the best teachers have pre-season anxiety!

Some among us are more autumn-oriented than others. Those who hunt avidly are seldom without some aspect of hunting—and thus the fall of the year—on our minds. It might be summer clay target shooting, or stopping with binoculars at a marsh to scan for hens with broods of ducklings, or making sure that our canine companion doesn’t get too far out of shape from a summer of inactivity. However it may manifest itself, fall is in our subconscious.

Those who hunt waterfowl—ducks and geese—have already begun speculating on what the season ahead will bring. This year may offer added reasons for anxiety, as several circumstances converge in a way we’ve not before seen. Some feel there is real potential for population-level harm, at least in the short term.

One circumstance is weather-driven, and pretty much out of our control. Much of Minnesota, the Dakotas, the Great Plains and prairie Canada are in drought or near-drought condition. Lake levels are down, shallow ponds dry or nearly so, municipalities implementing lawn-watering restrictions, cattle ranchers short of forage for their animals. This is already being predicted to translate into a down year for the production of young ducks and geese. Strong fall waterfowl numbers depend on the recruitment of young birds, and this is not shaping up to be that kind of year.

In the “old days” of waterfowl management, a weather year like this one could have been expected to lead to conservative hunting rules. The regulations for the hunting of ducks and geese—primarily season length and harvest limits—are set by the US. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), a federal agency within the Department of the Interior.

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In those old days—actually not so long ago—the current year’s nesting success and production of young ducks and geese were taken into account in setting the rules and limits for that year’s hunting season. Actual in-the-field survey work was done to gauge this, and hunters waited eagerly until middle or late summer to find out what the season dates and harvest rules would be.

This changed in 2015, for convenience more than biological reasons. The USFWS announced then that current-year nesting success would not be part of the regulation setting process. To quote from the agency, “Under the process we develop proposed hunting season frameworks for a given year in the fall of the prior year. We then finalize those frameworks a few months later, thereby enabling the state agencies to select and publish their season dates in early summer.” The USFWS also noted that this change would also allow hunters to make their hunting plans earlier.

The USFWS reasoned, or so it said, that in the long term this change would not have a significant impact on waterfowl populations. It certainly took pressure off federal and state wildlife managers, who before the change had to evaluate current year duck and goose nesting success, and expeditiously translate their findings into regulations for that fall’s hunt. But under the new approach—this year, for example—the USFWS’s proposed season length and harvest parameters were announced last February, long before the ducks and geese returned north to nest and attempt to raise young.

In February the USFWS recommended—based on information from 2020—that Minnesota and other states in our Mississippi Flyway be given the most liberal season length and harvest options that the agency’s management strategy allows. Under its Adaptive Harvest Management scheme, the agency can propose restrictive, moderate or liberal season frameworks, and liberal was the option they chose. Once again, a choice made long before there was any inkling of what 2021 nesting success would be.

In mid-June the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) announced some significant changes for the upcoming waterfowl season. Like other changes in recent years, they are intended to provide more opportunities for Minnesota hunters to harvest ducks. Whether this is a good year for such a management strategy is looking more and more like an open question.

The most headline-grabbing of this year’s changes is an experimental teal-only season. From September 4-8 hunters will be allowed to shoot six blue-wing and green-wing teal in combination, daily. Blue-wings are early migrants, and it’s common for some to leave the state before the regular waterfowl season here is in full swing. Cinnamon teal will also be legal targets, but they are uncommon in Minnesota.

Many longtime, experienced duck hunters are understandably concerned that identification of teal on the wing will be a problem, and ducks of the wrong species will be shot. Hens of any species, and young-of-the-year of either sex, are mostly drab tones of brown in early September. This year’s teal season will provide the earliest Minnesota duck hunting in modern times.

Adult drakes of the several Minnesota-nesting species could still be emerging from their post-breeding feather molt in early September, and wearing the drab “eclipse plumage” that is so unlike the bright courtship plumage they will acquire in late fall or early winter. In other words, not so easy to identify. Some young birds from late-hatched broods may be barely fledged and capable of flight. If this were a banner year for waterfowl production, the “collateral damage” of shooting the wrong birds during the early teal season might be less worrisome. But this is expected to be anything but a banner year.

Also intended to increase duck harvest this year is a change that will allow shooting until sunset from the first day of the season on September 25, as well as during the early teal season. This reverses a 47-year policy of ending shooting at 4 p.m. for the first two weeks of the season. That policy was adopted nearly a half-century ago to reduce hunting pressure on so-called “local ducks,” chiefly the mallards, teal, wood ducks and ringnecks that nest within our state’s borders and each year provide much of the early harvest for Minnesota hunters. The policy was based on “Let’s not kill the goose that lays the golden egg” logic.

To support this 2021 change the DNR cites the fact that there are only about half as many Minnesota duck hunters as there were in the 1970’s, and claims that there are several times as many breeding ducks, the latter point being one that many longtime waterfowl hunters would argue is not reflected in their experience during the hunting seasons.

So, in summation, we’re in a drought pattern that will likely lead to fewer ducks and geese raised in 2021. Yet federal waterfowl managers declared in February that Minnesota should have a liberal waterfowl hunting season, and the Minnesota DNR announced in June several changes intended to increase the 2021 harvest. Somehow the new duck math just doesn’t seem to add up.