In-season closures are designed to boost opportunity, but many question their effectiveness
Starting a good argument among duck hunters doesn't require much. Just mention a hot-button topic, stir the pot with a loaded comment, and then enjoy the show. And if you really want to see fireworks, spark a debate about duck season splits.
Using splits — that is, separating duck season into several segments — is a management practice designed to maximize hunting opportunities by closing the season during potentially dead periods and opening it when hunting, in theory, should be good, like after several days when migrating ducks can congregate and build in numbers without facing hunting pressure.
That sounds like a common-sense approach, but as with most issues involving migratory waterfowl, it's rarely that simple. Hunters often disagree about the effectiveness of splits and especially how to time them. And sorting through those opinions to find answers can be tricky.
Start and Stop
In a perfect world, splits wouldn't be necessary, as states could start duck seasons as early as possible and run them until hunting opportunities cease. However, waterfowl season frameworks are handed down by the federal government, and each flyway is allowed a finite number of season days. In the Mississippi Flyway, for example, states are currently allowed 60-day duck seasons. Problems arise when trying to accommodate hunters who want to pursue local ducks and early-season migrants and folks who'd rather break ice to chase the last hardy stragglers.
“The challenge with splits is that while hunters may agree that they would like a split, they often disagree about when the split should occur,” said Andy Raedeke, chief waterfowl biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
With so many factors and opinions at play, decisions on splits boil down to hunter input and feedback.
“We set season dates to accommodate hunter preferences as best we can,” Raedeke said. “We typically conduct a hunter opinion survey every five years, and at that time, we evaluate weather, migration, and harvest data. We then share this information with hunters at workshops around the state to learn more about their opinions.”
As a result, Missouri currently has three waterfowl zones and uses splits in the Middle and South units. Wisconsin — a state that produces lots of ducks and is also a major migration corridor — also has three zones and uses a split in one to accommodate several subsets of hunters.
“We have utilized the split in the Southern Zone after the first week of the season because we know, based on hunter feedback and information from staff, that birds become stale after opening week prior to a push of birds migrating in, which tends to happen later in October,” said Taylor Finger, migratory game-bird ecologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “This allows us to take some time off when we are fairly confident that birds have been educated and then extend the season into December for those hunters that want to pursue late-season opportunities.”
But even after all the fine-tuning, do hunters think these splits work?
Finger said he's received generally positive feedback about Wisconsin's Southern Zone split.
“We have had a five-day split in our Southern Zone on the same week for over 20 years, so fortunately, our hunters have become accustomed to this, and it does fall at a time when hunters and DNR staff have indicated that after a week of heavy hunting pressure, local birds have become stale, and the five days off helps to build birds without them being shot at,” he said.
“We see that this break gives the birds a rest, and particularly on the Mississippi River, we hear from hunters that the second opener is often as good as — if not better than — the first opener.”
Even with substantial hunter input, Raedeke said, it can be difficult to reach a consensus on splits and closure dates. He pointed to a recent MDC survey that indicated more than 30 percent of respondents favored a split in the state's Middle Zone to occur the third week of November.
“From a glass-half-full perspective, you could highlight that more than 30 percent of hunters agree that they would most prefer the split to occur during [that period],” he said. “From a glass-half-empty perspective, this isn't the choice the other two-thirds would select. We attempt to find the sweet spot between those who would like earlier season dates and those who would prefer later season dates.”
Ultimately, that's all biologists can do — identify season splits that best represent and support the opinions and input from the most hunters. The process will likely never be perfect. Then again, in an activity marked by the vagaries of weather, migration, and other factors, that's about all duck hunters can expect.
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