January 8, 2012 in Outdoors

After banner year, duck hunters worried

Kerry Luft Chicago Tribune
Rich Landers photo

Many species of waterfowl were feeding and rearing their young on the wetlands Ducks Unlimited has restored on the former pasture land at the Slavin Conservation Area.
(Full-size photo)

While this has shaped up as a banner season 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. “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.

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