New Waterfowl Regs May Be Popular, But At What Cost?

Will an early start to the waterfowl season and an expansion of the bag limit to three wood ducks take a toll on the wood ducks nesting in Minnesota? Roger Strand caught this image of a wood duck making its jump from a nesting box at Stoney Ridge farm near New London.

It’s hard to fault Tom Landwehr, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, for his intentions behind the new waterfowl regulations. He’s looking to interest more people in waterfowl hunting and reverse the steady decline in the number of hunters we’ve been seeing.

Opening the season earlier and increasing the limits of wood ducks and mallards will certainly give hunters more opportunities to bring home birds.Minnesotahunters will undoubtedly have more shots at the local birds before they depart.

It’s kind of like offering a promotion at the store. It will bring more out to try the product.

He and others are betting that will make for more duck hunters in the long term.

After having the opportunity earlier this year to visit with Roger Strand and look at his on-going work with wood ducks, I can’t help but believe the long term consequence will be fewer ducks and hunters.

At his Stoney Ridge Farm outside ofNew London, the retired surgeon and avid outdoorsman has been keeping careful watch and records on the nesting success of wood ducks in 30 different boxes for more than 20 years. In the last 10 years, he’s documented a steady rise in the number of mergansers in those nesting boxes at the expense of wood ducks.

It speaks to one very basic reality. In the natural world, there’s steady and intense competition taking place between the various species. Despite the best efforts of people likeStrandto provide nesting boxes and improve the chances at success, wood ducks are still struggling.

Wood ducks are known home bodies, and return to the same nesting area every year. Whacking off a larger share of the native ducks before they depart means there will be fewer returning to nest the following spring. The advantage will go to their competitors, like the mergansers.

The new regulations allow hunters to take three wood ducks, as compared to one in prior years.

The same scenario will play out for mallards. Hunters can take four mallards this year, two of which can be hens. The limit had been one.

Thanks to record levels of water in the Dakotas and much of Minnesota, this has been a great year for waterfowl production. The bigger numbers could compensate for the larger harvest the early start and liberalized bag limit will make possible. The DNR is also quick to point out that the new regulations are more in line with limits elsewhere in the flyway.

But in the big picture, the decline in duck hunters has more to do with the loss of wetlands and grasslands than with any changes in bag limits. There are fewer places to grow ducks, and there are fewer places to hunt them.

If we want to increase the number of duck hunters, we have to reverse the steady loss of wetlands and grassland and do more to increase waterfowl numbers. Our focus needs to be on growing ducks, not marketing.