Many people who hunt waterfowl are familiar with a season-setting process that in the northern tier of states is finalized only a few weeks before opening day.
Starting this year, however, the process is changing. What previously was a two-cycle regulatory practice—one for waterfowl and one for other migratory birds such as doves, woodcock and cranes—now is compressed into a single, annual process that in the end will allow state agencies to officially set their migratory bird seasons much earlier than previously.
For instance, duck season frameworks always have relied on information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s spring breeding duck survey. By the time current-year survey data is compiled and analyzed and season proposals go through the federal rule-making process, states weren’t able to officially set their opening and closing dates and daily bag limits until sometime in mid-August.
Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said the new streamlined process to set migratory game bird hunting seasons and bag limits provides more time for public comment on proposed rules and gives biologists more time to analyze population and harvest data.
“We will still need to collect information like we’ve always done,” Szymanski said. “It’s just that surveys will be used to set regulations for future situations, a year in advance. It is worth noting, though, that if major red flags are shown in the data, current year information could be used to make emergency changes to regulations.”
In other words, 2015 data is providing the benchmarks for the proposed 2016-17 waterfowl hunting season frameworks, rather than waiting until 2016 surveys are completed. While federal frameworks won’t be finalized until April, that’s still several months earlier than in past years, and that will allow Game and Fish to establish official waterfowl season dates at the same time as other small game seasons, such as pheasant and grouse.
“For the agency, this new process allows us to have the waterfowl regulations set much earlier, which will allow hunters to make hunting plans much earlier than before,” Szymanski said.
Waterfowl officials are able to streamline the previous regulatory process because they have a half-century of data to reference when setting season frameworks. “We have many, many years of data and experience in tracking waterfowl populations and knowing what is going to happen,” he said.
Szymanski said determining the season frameworks well in advance isn’t likely to hurt the resource, as hunting isn’t the major influence on waterfowl populations, but there is leeway to deal with rapidly changing conditions, such as extreme drought, if necessary
All in all, it’s a change in a system that has worked in the past, that is designed to better serve hunters in the future.
Here’s a look at some of the important dates in the process for the coming year:
• April: Determine fall 2015 mourning dove population size.
• May: Determine 2016 waterfowl breeding status. North Dakota Game and Fish will be finalizing 2016 dove and waterfowl regulation selections in April.
• Late June: In very rare occasions, the USFWS could make emergency changes to current year regulations for upcoming—in this case, fall 2016—hunting seasons.
• Late July: Analyze harvest data from 2015 waterfowl seasons.
• September: 2016 dove seasons open; flyways recommend 2017 dove and waterfowl regulations.
• Late September: 2016 waterfowl seasons open.
• Late October: Fish and Wildlife Service finalizes proposed 2017 dove and waterfowl regulations.
• April 2017: States finalize 2017 dove and waterfowl regulations.
For more information, check out the January issue of North Dakota Outdoors magazine. If you don’t subscribe, it’s available on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov.