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Waterfowl season prospects a mixed bag

A mixed bag of duck hunting habitat and water conditions and waterfowl population trends makes the 2004-2005 duck and goose hunting season a hard one to predict. Timely rains would help in many areas. (Missouri Dept. of Conservation photo)

Some duck numbers are down; others are up. Some habitat conditions are excellent, others poor. Ultimately, weather will determine hunters' success.

JEFFERSON CITY--Missouri hunters will find fewer ducks and geese this year, but better habitat. They will have the later hunting seasons they asked for, but also a reduced late-season bag limit on Canada geese in some areas. This mixed bag of other good and bad news makes predicting Missouri's 2004-2005 waterfowl hunting season a chancy proposition.

Resource Scientist Andy Raedeke prefers to look on the bright side. "With the right weather, duck hunters could have as good a year as they did in 2003," said Raedeke, who works at the Missouri Department of Conservation's Resource Science Center in Columbia. That is music to the ears of Missouri duck hunters, who killed more ducks last year than the did in any of the 10 previous years.

Raedeke said several elements are in place for good to excellent hunting conditions this year. Those elements include abundant natural foods and water in most areas. Ample rainfall during the spring and summer encouraged good seed production from native plants and filled wetland basins.

However, dry weather in southeastern Missouri and heavy late-summer rains in parts of northern Missouri reduced the amount of wild foods available to ducks.

Duck Creek Conservation Area (CA) had so little water at the end of September that most of its duck blinds were high and dry. The popular timber areas might not be huntable unless substantial rains fall between now and opening day.

Summer floods at Thomas Hill Reservoir and Mark Twain and Long Branch lakes came so late that native plants had no time to recover and produce seeds that attract and hold migrating waterfowl. The same is true on parts of Fountain Grove CA.

The Conservation Department's managed wetland areas along the Missouri River could suffer from lack of water, too. While most of Missouri had ample rainfall this spring and summer, the upper Missouri River Basin suffered another dry year. Water levels in big reservoirs in the Dakotas are so low that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to reduce the amount of water it releases from Missouri River dams.

This could make it more difficult to pump water to maintain wetlands at Bob Brown, Grand Pass, and Eagle Bluffs CAs. That would mean fewer hunting spots at each of these areas.

Low river levels also result in poor habitat conditions on areas that make passive use of river water. Again, timely rains could turn this situation around, creating excellent hunting conditions.

Then there are the birds themselves. Population surveys show that duck numbers declined to levels similar to 2002. Ducks in the prairie pothole region of Canada and the north-central United States suffered through a late, cold spring that shortened their nesting season. On top of that, they found fewer ponds in which to nest. As a result, total duck numbers are down about 11 percent from last year. The good news is that duck numbers are down only about 3 percent from the long-term average.

The number of mallards, which make up most of Missouri hunters' bag, is similar to last year, but still down 9 percent compared to the long-term average. Poor production means that a larger-than-normal portion of mallards that arrive in Missouri this year will be adults. Mature birds are more wary and pose a greater challenge to hunters.

Numbers of the second-most-numerous duck species, blue-winged teal, are down 26 percent from last year and down 12 percent from the long-term average. Green-winged teal remained similar to last year, but are still up 34 percent over the long term.

Other good news includes the fact that gadwall numbers remain 70 percent above the long-term average. And in spite of dropping 22 percent this year, northern shoveler numbers remain 42 percent above their long-term average.
Scaup remain 39 percent below the long-term average. American wigeon numbers dropped 22 percent, putting them down 33 percent long-term. The population status of Northern pintails continues to be a concern, as this species is down 61 percent from the long-term average.

Canvasback numbers did not improve enough to warrant the removal of restrictive harvest regulations. Redheads numbers are similar to last year and the long-term average.

The story is similar for Canada geese. Missouri's resident population of giant Canada geese is stable at around 64,000. That's good news for hunters who take part in the early Canada goose season. Not so good is the news about this year's migratory Canada goose reproduction.

Spring came late to the Canadian provinces where most of Missouri's migrant geese nest. Deep snow and severe cold delayed the start of nesting, and surveys show one of the poorest hatches on record. As a result, the bag limit has been reduced from two to one bird daily during the late, 30-day segment of the hunting season in the North and Middle Zones.

The final factor in determining how good duck hunting will be in Missouri this year is weather.

"It looks like a mixed bag this year," said Raedeke, "less optimistic but with some bright spots here and there. It can still change prior to the season, depending on additional precipitation or lack of it. As always, the weather up north of Missouri will determine migration timing."

Raedeke said early cold fronts that push ducks into the state would benefit hunters. Fall rains will improve habitat conditions to keep ducks in Missouri. A late freeze-up could ensure hunting opportunities throughout the 60-day season. "Weather is always the wild card. No matter how much food and water we have when the season starts, severe weather can push waterfowl on south and effectively end the season for Missouri hunters."

-Jim Low-

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