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Strong duck populations mean ‘liberal’ bag limits this season

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service again is proposing the “liberal” package of regulations for this fall’s late waterfowl seasons.

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States in each of the four flyways select their individual seasons from within the federal frameworks that establish the earliest beginning and latest ending dates and maximum season lengths and bag limits.

Despite the ongoing loss of grassland and wetland habitat, duck populations remain substantially higher than long-term averages across North America. According to the Service’s 2014 Waterfowl Population Status Report, the estimated spring continental duck population was 49.2 million, up 8 percent from last year’s 45.6 million and 43 percent higher than the long-term average from 1955 to 2013.

As called for under liberal regulations, North Dakota and other Central Flyway states can offer a 74-day duck season again this fall. North Dakota’s early Canada goose season opens Friday and calls for a limit of 15 daily and 45 in possession.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department will announce details of its regular fall waterfowl seasons later this month.

Minnesota opener

In Minnesota, the Department of Natural Resources on Thursday announced that waterfowl season will open a half-hour before sunrise Sept. 27. Minnesota and other Mississippi Flyway states can offer a season of no more than 60 days, and the DNR said this year’s season will be similar to last year, with similar bag limits and season dates that vary for north, central and southern zones.

In all zones, the daily bag limit remains at six ducks per day. The mallard bag limit remains at four per day, including two hen mallards. The wood duck bag limit remains at three per day. The only bag limit change from the 2013 waterfowl season is the canvasback limit, which decreases from two to one per day.

Minnesota and three other states in the Mississippi Flyway had the option of including two additional blue-winged teal in the daily bag limit but opted not to do so this year.

“We thought the risk that green-winged teal might be taken by mistake was too great,” said Paul Telander, DNR wildlife section chief. “In addition, we did not get a chance to survey waterfowl hunters or take any form of public input related to bonus teal. We plan to do that within the next year.”

Mallard abundance from a continental spring survey that includes Minnesota is used to set overall duck season length. This year’s estimate was 11 million mallards, which was similar to last year’s estimate of 10.8 million mallards and well above the long-term average.

In another measure of Minnesota duck populations, a population index of resident breeding mallards was down slightly from last year, but 13 percent above the long-term average.

“Continental breeding duck numbers were good this year, and following heavy rains in the spring, wetland conditions in the major waterfowl breeding areas were favorable,” said Steve Cordts, waterfowl specialist for the DNR.

N.D. outlook

In North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department’s annual spring breeding duck survey tallied an index of 4.9 million birds, up 23 percent from last year and 110 percent above the long-term average from 1948 to 2013.

Despite the looming loss of habitat, duck numbers remain high in North Dakota, thanks to abundant water and good nesting cover. Duck numbers in North Dakota during the past two decades are the highest since survey records began in 1948.

How long that will continue remains to be seen. Mike Szymanski, waterfowl biologist for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said the loss of Conservation Reserve Program land was evident this year as contracts continue to expire and large tracts of the set-aside land return to ag production.

“The loss of grass will hurt production of ducks and other grassland nesting birds,” Szymanski said. “However, the recent overly wet conditions are helping bridge the gap a little bit for ducks.”

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