One Hunter's Opinion on Our Toughest Challenges
Cheer and optimism rule the waterfowling world when times are good. And why not? Bird numbers remain high, and we've enjoyed more than two decades of liberal season frameworks.
But hunters who have seen enough sunrises in the marsh know that good times don't always last. And although they view the natural ebb and flow of Mother Nature with perspective, those folks also know that some trends cannot be reversed. Further, they realize that waterfowl hunting faces many challenges ‚ even threats ‚ in the 21st century.
Some potential problems are obvious, but others are insidious. None should be ignored. So, at the risk of sounding like a pessimistic old grump, here's my brief list of the greatest threats to waterfowl hunting.
The number of active U.S. duck hunters increased slightly to about 1.04 million during the 2016-'17 season. That seems like a lot of people until you consider that there were about 2.03 million active American duck hunters in 1970. Further, the number of active U.S. waterfowlers has decreased steadily since 1997, when about 1.41 million folks hunted ducks and geese. And those numbers are especially troubling considering the aforementioned liberal seasons and high numbers of breeding ducks and geese in recent years.
Many factors share blame for this troubling slide. However, it's easy to identify one: We're not replacing ourselves adequately. That is, we're not bringing enough youngsters into the waterfowling fold and then keeping them interested.
The solution is equally simple: Make the effort to introduce children and neophyte adults to duck and goose hunting. State programs assist this effort. Private initiatives, such as Delta Waterfowl's First Hunt and First-Duck Pin programsdo wonderful work. But ultimately, it takes waterfowl hunters to recruit and retain new waterfowlers. Take your children. Take your friends' children. Heck, sign up to take children from urban or disadvantaged families. It will be worthwhile.
Oh, and one note to those who criticize special youth seasons because they believe those hunts spoil opportunities for adults during the regular season: Seriously, how many ducks have you killed in your life? You would deny children, teens and other newcomers the chance for a great experience because you need to add a few more birds to your strap? That attitude, friends, is part of the problem.
Photo ¬© Craig Watson
With phenomenal breeding-duck numbers in recent years, many assume that North America's habitat situation is fine. But continuing threats to wetlands and grasslands loom large. Without delving too deep into the problem, let's just acknowledge that wetlands remain under siege from political and financial forces that view them as impediments to development and profit. And grasslands in the Prairie Pothole Region, which produces about 50 percent of North America's ducks, have lost significant protection in recent years. For example, the federal Conservation Reserve Program has lost about 13 million acres since 2007. When drought inevitably returns to the prairies, ducks will be challenged to find adequate nesting habitat.
Many hunters shrug their shoulders and say that we can't stop progress. However, we shouldn't capitulate so easily. If you care about duck and goose hunting, you should ‚ you must ‚ speak out against forces that destroy nesting, wintering and migration habitat for waterfowl. Yeah, you're only one voice, but when one voice joins others, people in power begin to listen. That's a start.
Photo ¬© Tom Rassuchine/Banded
Most waterfowlers would agree that hunting pressure has increased substantially at easily accessible or well-known spots throughout the country. As such, folks who cannot afford high-dollar duck clubs, leases or guided trips must think smarter, work harder and basically outcompete fellow hunters. And sometimes, even that's not enough to avoid interference.
An article in the Spring 2017 Delta Waterfowl by Paul Wait, editor and publisher of Delta Waterfowl, quoted Luke Laborde, an instructor at Louisiana State University's School of Renewable Resources, about waterfowl hunter preference research he conducted in 2011. About 1,500 respondents were asked to rate the importance of several factors in deciding whether they would hunt waterfowl during a season. The No. 1 factor was the number of other hunters where I hunt. Laborde's research also concluded that access to uncrowded areas and private land promoted long-term participation in waterfowl hunting.
Let's put it in simpler terms: General access to quality hunting areas is shrinking. Maybe it's because of shoreline development along a lakeshore. Perhaps it's because many farmers no longer grant permission. Certainly, it's a combination of those and myriad other factors. Whatever the reason, people facing the prospects of crowded marshes or shouting matches in the dark often forgo waterfowl hunting, thinking the hassle isn't worth it. Thus, we lose waterfowl hunters.
This problem has no easy fixes. Our combined money and influence can help state agencies or private groups purchase or lease accessible properties, but at best, we're treading water. When pitted against man's incessant need for food, habitation, transportation and other social factors, hunting access loses.
Photo ¬© Tom Rassuchine/Banded
Our biggest threat might be the reluctance to acknowledge and face these or other threats to waterfowl hunting. Like I said, when times are good and waterfowl numbers seem endless, it's easy to bury our collective head in the sand and figure everything will be OK.
Sure, maybe it will be ‚ at least during our hunting careers. But maybe it won't be. Many of us old geezers remember the point system, and 30-day seasons with three-duck limits during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Similar days will return, and unless we deal now with recruitment, habitat and access, waterfowl and waterfowl hunting won't rebound as quickly as they did when water returned to the prairies in the '90s.
If we care at all about ducks, geese and the chance to pursue them, we must educate ourselves, speak out and work to solve problems. Otherwise, future generations could face far more serious issues.
Photo ¬© Tom Rassuchine/Banded