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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Drought hurting duck production

by Bryan Hendricks | June 17, 2021 at 2:03 a.m.

Poor wetland conditions in North Dakota indicate a poor breeding year for ducks, according to the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's 74th annual breeding duck survey.

Lack of water is the culprit. The 2021 May water index was down 80% from 2020, and nearly 68% below the 1948-2020 average in the state. Steve Adair, Ducks Unlimited's chief scientist, said dry weather will affect waterfowl production in upper Great Plains this year, but he cautioned against alarm. Ultimately, drought is good for wetlands, Adair said.

"While these survey numbers and behavioral observations are sobering and indicate a decline in duck production in North Dakota, we must keep in mind that periodic drought on the prairies is a normal part of the climate cycle," Adair said. "While the drought persists, these periods allow wetlands to recycle nutrients and re-vegetate, setting the stage for a boom in populations when water returns."

Ducks have a multipronged response to drought. They take a break from breeding, and some forgo nesting all together. Others disperse to areas with more suitable wetland conditions. Ducks retreat to Canada's Boreal Forest, for example, and to other breeding regions during drought for breeding habitat and as refuge. Ducks Unlimited, Ducks Unlimited Canada, the Pew Charitable Trusts, First Nations and other partners have helped protect more than 950 million acres in the Boreal Forest in the past 20 years.

Waterfowl bag limits and dates for the 2021-22 season will not change, even with the expected decline in broods. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service adjusts its adaptive waterfowl harvest program with habitat conditions and population sizes to allow sustainable harvest as conditions change.

Despite drought, waterfowl conservation organizations will continue improving waterfowl nesting habitat in the prairie pothole region so that the area will be primed to fuel a resurgence in duck numbers, said Karen Waldrop, Ducks Unlimited's Chief Conservation Officer.

"We've benefited from above-average moisture on the breeding grounds for more than two decades, and this drought is a difficult, but necessary, part of the prairie climate cycle," said Karen Waldrop, Ducks Unlimited's chief conservation officer.

Meanwhile, much of the southern end of the duck migration highway is underwater. As has become the norm for this time in recent years, key portions of the lower Mississippi Flyway in Arkansas are flooded due to excessive rain. A reader sent us a photo last week of floodwaters in Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area near Augusta. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers paid the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission about $13 million for timber damage in the WMA about 10 years ago after the Game and Fish Commission successfully argued against the Corps in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Game and Fish proved that the Corps had caused flooding in Black River WMA when it deviated from its operating plan. It's flooded now because it's just too darned wet.

Also, the entire Three Rivers area -- from Dumas to the Mississippi River -- is flooded as well.

None of that has any bearing on ducks at this time, but it continues to put pressure on flood-stressed bottomland hardwoods in Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. The soil is overly saturated, and constant water inflow will not allow it to dry.

My neighbor, a logger who has been off work during the rainy season, said his crew has been unable to cut 400 acres near Pine Bluff. It is too wet to get logging equipment into and out of the woods.

"All we do is pop axles and tear stuff up trying to get out of there, so all we can do is wait for it to dry out," he said. "It's red clay soil. You can burn rubber on it when it's dry, but when it's like this, it just swallows you up. It'll probably be another five to seven days before we can get in there."

As bad as recent duck seasons have been in Arkansas, hunters will probably not notice smaller numbers of ducks in the fall. That might change if drought persists in the upper Midwest.

As usual, hunters starting early in Canada will lop off a percentage at the beginning of the season, and ducks will get hammered before they reach Arkansas. We might very well notice a smaller trickle if winters remain warm up north.

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