Minnesota’s breeding duck population has dropped to an estimated 507,000 birds, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
This number is 31 percent lower than last year and 19 percent below the long-term average of 626,000. The population estimate is based on the DNR’s May aerial waterfowl survey.
“Though population swings are normal, it’s always disappointing when numbers decline,” said Dennis Simon, DNR wildlife chief. “Our goal is to build a breeding population of 1 million birds.”
Steve Cordts, the DNR waterfowl specialist who conducted the survey, said the mallard breeding population was estimated at 236,000. This is 6 percent above the long-term average of 224,000 breeding mallards, but 21 percent below last year and 19 percent below the recent 10-year average.
Blue-winged teal numbers declined 11 percent from last year to 135,000 and remained 39 percent below the long-term average.
“Blue-winged teal counts are always more variable than mallard counts since they are a later migrant through the state,” Cordts said. “Some years, we count migrant teal during the survey, but this year it appeared that most migrant blue-wings had already moved through the state by the time the survey began.”
The combined populations of other ducks, such as wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, gadwalls, canvasbacks and redheads, decreased to 170,000, which is 5 percent below the long-term average.
The estimated number of wetlands was 318,000, down 2 percent from last year but above the long-term average of 248,000.
“Wetland conditions were highly variable this year,” Cordts said. “The east-central and southern survey areas were extremely dry, but conditions improved dramatically moving north and west across the state.”
Additional wetlands and grasslands – including higher quality grasslands and wetlands – are key to improving breeding duck numbers. The DNR’s Duck Recovery Plan identifies the need to restore 2 million acres of additional habitat to achieve the 1 million-bird breeding population level.
“We are committed to hitting the 1 million-bird target,” Simon said. “That means focusing on a long-term strategy to improve the quantity and quality of wetlands and grassland through the combined efforts of many partners.”
Simon said new constitutionally dedicated funding for habitat conservation would help this effort. The Legislature recently appropriated about $13 million to various conservation organizations for habitat improvement on wildlife management areas (WMA), federal waterfowl production areas and other lands. The Legislature also appropriated $8.5 million of dedicated funding to the DNR for WMA grassland and wetland acquisition and enhancement.
The DNR’s waterfowl survey has been conducted in early May each year since 1968, with only minor changes to the survey design. A DNR waterfowl biologist and pilot count all waterfowl and wetlands along established survey routes by flying low-level aerial surveys. The survey is timed to coincide with peak nesting activity of mallards.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provides ground crews that also count waterfowl along some of the same survey routes, providing data that is used to correct for birds not seen by the aerial crew. The survey was designed to provide an index of breeding duck abundance in about 40 percent of the state that includes much of Minnesota’s best remaining duck breeding habitat.
Data on breeding duck numbers across other regions of North America is not yet available, but preliminary reports suggest good to excellent wetland habitat conditions in the Dakotas and portions of southern Canada.
The entire report can be viewed online. Waterfowl hunting regulations effective this fall will be released in August.
This year’s estimate of 285,000 Canada geese remains similar to last year’s estimate of 289,000.
“Although the population is still above our goal, the number of breeding Canada geese has stabilized and is no longer increasing rapidly,” said DNR biologist Dave Rave. “Most wildlife managers have reported good numbers of goose broods so far this summer, which should translate into plenty of opportunity for hunters this fall.”
Since 2001, the DNR has conducted a helicopter survey of nesting Canada geese during April. The survey, which includes most of the state except for the Twin Cities metropolitan area, counts Canada geese on randomly selected plots located in prairie, transition and forested areas.