Spring duck numbers in North Dakota are down 5 percent from last year, but the population index remains considerably higher than long-term averages, the Game and Fish Department said.
Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck, said this spring’s duck index was 3.4 million, a drop of 5 percent from 2015 but the 20th-highest index on record.
The number doesn’t represent a population estimate, but instead is designed to gauge long-term trends. Game and Fish has conducted the annual spring duck and wetland survey since 1948.
“We’ve been riding that high since 1994 basically,” Szymanski said.
He said he was surprised the decline wasn’t larger, given drier spring conditions across the state and continued loss of grassland and wetland habitat.
The spring water index was down 50 percent, Szymanski said, driven by a drop in the number of seasonal and temporary wetlands. Rain that has fallen since the survey has replenished wetlands in some parts of the state, and that could benefit production.
The water index is based on basins with water and doesn’t necessarily reflect the amount of water in wetlands or the types of wetlands represented.
“We keep getting lucky with timely rainfall after it looks like we’re going to dry up,” Szymanski said. “This year, we’re in kind of our bottom third for water in the survey and top third for ducks. It was looking like this would maybe be a year we don’t get production to keep us going, but with all the rain we’ve gotten since mid-May, it’s hard to say how it will all turn out.
“It certainly looks brighter, like we might get good production from birds that hung in the state.”
The spring survey showed a decline in all duck species except ruddy ducks, which were up 19 percent, and gadwall, up 4 percent. Shovelers were unchanged, while mallards were down 9 percent, pintails were down 17 percent and canvasback numbers fell 18 percent.
On the upside, all species except pintails and canvasbacks were higher than the long-term average.
Szymanski said he wasn’t surprised by the species moves.
“We were pretty stable for the most part—the changes weren’t real big,” Szymanski said. “Settling” conditions that keep ducks in the state weren’t very good at the time of the survey, he said, and a lot of birds already may have passed through North Dakota.
“It wasn’t the most appealing landscape for a duck to show up in,” Szymanski said.
As part of the survey, Game and Fish crews cover eight transects that run north to south across the state, Szymanski said, counting all of the ducks and wetlands within 220 yards of each side of the vehicle. Each crew consists of two people, and the total survey area covers 1,823 miles.
“It’s a weeklong survey, and the days can be quite long,” Szymanski said. “We want to have all the survey crews running at the same time.”
During the survey, at least, the northwest part of the state and the Missouri Coteau region in central North Dakota had the best water conditions, Szymanski said. He said the department will have a better idea of duck production, summer wetland conditions and fall hunting prospects after the annual brood count survey in mid-July.
“Hopefully, improved wetland conditions since the May survey will carry through into increased wetland availability for duck broods,” Szymanski said.