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Waterfowl hunters worry about the future

January 09, 2012 at 02:23 PM


HENNEPIN, Ill. — This was the scene that duck hunters see in their dreams.

Mallards came slip-sliding out of a frosty blue sky and careened toward our decoys, spilling air from their wings and dropping fast. They buzzed over the tree line and into the little waterhole where we waited under the branches, a few ducks shy of our limit but in no hurry for the spectacle to end.

Soon enough we were sloshing towards dry land, heavy game straps draped over our shoulders. And then Charlie Potter and I sat down to watch the show begin again.

That was our reward for long hours spent scanning pathetically empty skies, then abandoning a comfortable blind to slog through thigh-deep water to reach the spot where the ducks wanted to be. And Potter’s Labrador, Cotton, capped a memorable day with a heroic retrieve of a drake that otherwise would have been lost.

“It was fabulous, absolutely the way it should be,” Potter said. “To finally figure out where to go and to be there when the birds decided to fly, that is so rewarding.”

But while this has shaped up as a banner year for waterfowl across the continent, advocates for ducks and duck hunters are worried. A confluence of events — political, economic and meteorological — have combined to imperil critical habitat, and the impact could be devastating.

“The very things that gave us this boom could be going away,” said John Devney, senior vice president of the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, an organization that works to promote waterfowl and waterfowl hunting in the U.S. and Canada.

“I would venture that less than one-half of 1 percent of all duck hunters have ever been to the breeding grounds to understand the tsunami that’s coming our way,” added Potter, who is president and CEO of the Max McGraw Wildlife Foundation and host of WGN-AM’s “Great Outdoors” show. “We are blissfully ignorant.”


High commodity prices have prompted farmers to drain wetlands and put once-fallow cropland back into production, cranking out bushels of valuable grain but eradicating the prairie grasses and brush that protect wildlife.

Meanwhile, the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), established in the 1985 Farm Bill to pay farmers to take marginal land out of production, is under pressure as Congress and the Obama administration try to cut the federal budget. Without CRP payments, conservation leaders fear that millions more acres will go back under the plow.

Three years of remarkably wet conditions created nearly ideal nesting conditions in the prairie potholes of the Dakotas and Canada. Species such as blue-winged teal, redheads and gadwall are at or near historic highs, but it’s unclear whether that can last.

“Sooner or later, we’re going to dry up,” Devney said. “CRP looks to be in jeopardy, native grasslands appear to be in jeopardy, our wetlands look like they could be in real jeopardy.”

It’s not just ducks that are vulnerable. Pheasants and other game birds have been hammered by successively brutal winters and wet nesting seasons in the Dakotas, to the point that North Dakota reported a 36 percent decline in its pheasant population this year while South Dakota’s dropped by nearly half. The losses were especially severe in areas where CRP acreage went back into crop production.

None of that takes into account CRP’s broader environmental benefits, such as erosion prevention, flood mitigation and the protection of water supplies. “This is probably the most important societal program for the environment we’ve ever delivered,” Potter said.

Even more vexing is the question of what to do about it. Devney and Potter suggest that the answer lies in providing an economic incentive to private landowners to keep at least some ground out of crop production. When strapped farmers can make more from crops than conservation, “you can’t blame them in the least” for doing so, Devney said.

“Until we can send a competing market signal, we’re doomed,” he said.

Potter went further, saying that hunters and anglers who contribute money to groups for habitat work should demand to see credible results. “Giving money for habitat is absolutely useless if that habitat is not managed,” he said.

“The duck hunter who has been so generous and cares so deeply, doesn’t realize how quickly this is going to turn,” Potter added, leaving unspoken for now the unhappy thought that our magical day might never be repeated.

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