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June 28, 2011

Improved wetland conditions trigger response

MADISON - Above average spring rains have improved wetland conditions across Wisconsin and could lead to better local duck production, according to state waterfowl biologists.

"This is good news after a dry 2010 in Wisconsin with below average duck numbers," said Kent Van Horn, Department of Natural Resources migratory waterfowl biologist. "2011 is shaping up to be a better than average year for local duck production.

"As migratory birds, ducks will often move among regions in response to habitat conditions. In spring 2011, ducks had abundant choices since wetland conditions are good to excellent across the Great Lakes region as well as the primary duck breeding areas of the Dakotas and Canada. Continental duck numbers, due out in July, should also be high."

Variation from year to year in wetland conditions and breeding ducks is part of the natural cycle in the world of wetland wildlife. Wetland numbers were relatively low in Wisconsin during 2009 and 2010 while wetland numbers were high in the prairies of the United States. As a result, breeding duck numbers improved from low in 2010 to above average in 2011.

Annual surveys lead to season structure

Three primary sources of information on yearly waterfowl breeding conditions are used to determine the fall hunting season structure for Wisconsin, according to Van Horn.

"We've completed the annual Wisconsin Breeding Waterfowl Survey, which is very important since a large proportion of the ducks harvested in Wisconsin are raised in Wisconsin," Van Horn said. "The full version of the report is available on the waterfowl page of the DNR website, under the Management Information tab."

A cooperative survey of Canada geese, the Mississippi Valley Population (MVP) Breeding Survey, organized by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources has also been completed.

The final piece is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service breeding waterfowl survey for the northern United States, Canada and Alaska. That information is expected in the next few weeks and will form the framework for the 2011 fall hunting seasons. Only preliminary wetland data is available at this time.


Waterfowl breeding areas in parkland and prairie Canada this spring had mostly good to excellent conditions, so duck breeding is expected to be good overall. In some areas, spring flooding may have caused problems for early nesting ducks but with excellent habitat, successful renesting would be expected. Spring habitat conditions for the Dakotas and Minnesota were also excellent this year. In North Dakota, wetlands were 128 percent above the long term average and breeding duck numbers were 85 percent above the long term average. In Minnesota, wetland numbers hit a record high and the total breeding duck count was 11 percent above the long term average.

In Wisconsin, despite relatively average October-May precipitation, flooding early last fall helped to alleviate some of the drought conditions seen in the north during prior years. Wisconsin also experienced above average spring precipitation statewide. At the time of the waterfowl survey in early May, wetland conditions in Wisconsin were good to average, which was in marked contrast to a dry 2010. Wetland numbers in northern Wisconsin were up from 2010 and in the southern part of the state conditions improved from the dry 2010 to wetland numbers near the long term average. Overall duck breeding conditions in Wisconsin for 2011 are good.

The four most abundant ducks in Wisconsin's fall hunting harvest are mallards, wood ducks, green-winged teal, and blue-winged teal. Van Horn notes that many of the ducks harvested in Wisconsin come from birds that breed in Wisconsin, in contrast to other states in the flyway, which rely more heavily on birds raised in the prairies or boreal forests of Canada.

"These are population estimates - not exact counts - so changes of near 20 percent up or down in the estimates each year may not reflect any real change in the actual population," Van Horn said.

The 2011 total Wisconsin breeding duck population estimate of 513,746 is up 33 percent from 2010 and 17 percent above the long term (38 years) average. This is good news after a below average estimate in 2010 and reflects a response to improved water conditions on the Wisconsin landscape.

Conservation dollars and efforts of waterfowl hunters over the decades have protected and managed wetland and upland habitats important to breeding ducks. Protection of these areas even in dry years provides the setting for good duck responses when the rainfall increases during wet years.

"A continued concern for the future of breeding ducks in Wisconsin is the loss of CRP set-aside grasslands as they are converted back into row crops," said Van Horn. With the high price of corn and reduced enrollment in CRP, we continue to experience a loss of nesting habitat in Wisconsin and elsewhere. While these spring breeding duck numbers are encouraging, sufficient water for fall wetland conditions will be needed for good hunting conditions come opening day of duck season."

The 2011 total mallard population estimate of 187,862 is slightly lower that the 2010 estimate of 199,107, but remains 3 percent above the long-term average (38 year). Mallards contribute to nearly 40 percent of the overall state duck harvest in Wisconsin. Overall the breeding population of mallards in Wisconsin has leveled off near 200,000 in recent years depending on annual wetland conditions. For 2011 hunters should expect average production and fall mallard numbers.

The second most abundant duck in the fall harvest is the wood duck and breeding wood duck populations continue to provide an encouraging outlook for ducks in Wisconsin. In 2011, the population estimate for wood ducks of 146,471 is 91 percent above the long term average. It appears that wood ducks responded to improved wetland conditions in two key survey regions in northwest and southeast Wisconsin.

"These numbers are good news since it has been three years now since we increased the daily bag limit on wood ducks from two to three ducks to provide more hunting opportunity," according to Van Horn.

The 2011 blue-winged teal breeding population estimate of 90,803 is in strong contrast to a very low estimate of 50,188 in 2010. These changes likely reflect birds moving to good wetland conditions rather than a marked population increase. Blue-winged teal are known to move around the continent in order to find the best water for breeding. Teal moving through Wisconsin this spring found much more favorable conditions than in 2010. Continentally, blue-winged teal remain at very high breeding populations and preliminary 2011 continental estimates indicate an increase over 2010 levels.

Canada geese

"There are two different populations of Canada geese that represent most of the geese in Wisconsin during the regular fall hunting season. The average over the last several years has shown the hunting harvest split roughly 50:50 between these two populations during the regular hunting seasons," Van Horn said.

One population, called resident giant Canada geese, nests in Wisconsin. The 2011 Wisconsin breeding Canada goose population estimate of 176,095 is up 12 percent from 2010 and is 104 percent above the long term (25 year) average. Wisconsin's breeding resident Canada goose population appeared to stabilize around 120,000 birds from 2005-08 but has shown a return to an increasing population trend from 2009-11.

"We expect an abundant Canada goose population this fall, particularly for the Early September Canada goose season (September 1-15 with a 5 bird daily bag limit)," says Van Horn.

By federal rule, the Early September Canada goose season harvest must remain more than 90 percent giant Canada geese that nest in Wisconsin or adjacent states. The season is scheduled early to target this population.

The second Canada goose population is the Mississippi Valley Population, which is made up of slightly smaller birds that nest along the coast of Hudson Bay in northern Ontario and migrate through Wisconsin and other Midwestern states. The 2011 breeding population estimate of 269,840 is down from the 2010 estimate of 339,310 and 25 percent below the long term (21 years) average. While the spring thaw and breeding conditions on the MVP breeding ground are near average, the population of breeding geese is below average. Production for this population was not good in 2009 or 2010 so this may have contributed to the lower population in 2011. However, future population trends and success of this population will need to be closely monitored.

Overall, 2011 looks to be a very good year for duck and Canada goose populations, Van Horn says. Final continental numbers will not be available from the US Fish and Wildlife Service until mid-July. Once these data are available, Wisconsin DNR staff will meet with other state, federal and provincial agencies at the Mississippi Flyway Council meeting at the end of July. After this series of meetings, state biologist will have a clearer picture of how the population data will impact the 2011 waterfowl hunting regulations.

The Mississippi Flyway Council

The Mississippi Flyway Council, which is made up of waterfowl specialists and wildlife directors from the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Ontario, and Saskatchewan will meet later this summer to analyze survey data and make recommendation to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) on waterfowl hunting regulations before the federal agency establishes a framework under which states and provinces can set waterfowl hunting seasons.

Following the flyway council meeting and after the USFWS sets a season framework, public hearings on Wisconsin's proposed waterfowl seasons will be held in August. The final Wisconsin seasons will be set by the state Natural Resource Board at its Aug. 10 meeting in Spring Green.

"As we do each year, the public will have opportunities to provide input on waterfowl hunting season during our meetings and hearings," said Van Horn. "These public meetings are also a great opportunity to hear the latest on waterfowl management and population status. We'll take the public input to the Natural Resources Board along with a season structure proposal for approval."

The DNR's proposed waterfowl seasons will be available at the end of July on the waterfowl pages of the DNR website. The public can send comments on the proposal to the Assistant Migratory Game Bird Ecologist before midnight on Thursday, August 4.

Comments on changes to state duck hunting zones will also be collected through Aug. 4 but people are encouraged to submit input on zone configurations now. Information on the proposed zone changes are available on the waterfowl pages of the DNR website.

Comments on the season or zone proposals should be sent to James Christopoulos, DNR Bureau of Wildlife Management, PO Box 7921, Madison, WI 53707-7921 or by email to:

The following meetings on the status of waterfowl populations and possible season structures will be held:

Pre-Flyway Meeting

Post-Flyway Meetings

Public Hearing Locations

FOR MORE INFORMATION CONTACT: Kent Van Horn - (608) 266-8841

Last Revised: Tuesday, June 28, 2011

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