New studies: Prairie wetlands decline, duck populations increase

7/3/2014 | 0

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The breeding population of Green-winged Teal has risen 13 percent over last year, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by gscott68

Two new reports from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service paint a complex picture of the status of North American ducks.

Prairie wetlands in the Prairie Pothole Region, often referred to as America’s duck factory, declined by 1.1 percent between 1997 and 2009, according to a study released Tuesday, July 1. The authors say 74,340 acres or 107,000 wetland basins were lost in the 12-year period. The losses averaged 6,200 acres per year.

The declines add up to a loss of breeding habitat for 100,000 pairs of ducks, according to Ducks Unlimited.

The Prairie Pothole Region extends from Iowa to Alberta. Map by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Prairie Pothole Region extends from Iowa to Alberta. Map by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“Extreme weather patterns, rising agricultural commodity prices, and oil and gas development are threatening millions of acres of prairie wetlands, putting further pressure on the most valuable breeding area for ducks in the Americas,” said Dan Ashe, FWS director. “This report highlights the need for continued vigilance in monitoring and protecting the Prairie Pothole Region to ensure it remains healthy for waterfowl for generations to come.”

The good news for now, according to a report issued Wednesday, July 2, is that duck populations have increased eight percent over last year, and their habitat conditions have improved. The conclusions are based on the 2014 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey conducted by FWS and the Canadian Wildlife Service. The annual duck survey encompasses more than two million square miles of waterfowl habitat across Alaska, north-central and northeastern U.S. states, and south-central, eastern, and northern Canada.

The preliminary estimate for the total duck population is 49.2 million birds, an 8 percent increase over last year’s estimate of 45.6 million birds, and 43 percent above the long-term average.

“It looks like another good waterfowl breeding year for a good portion of the prairies and the boreal forest,” said Dale Hall, chief executive of Ducks Unlimited. “Precipitation in the form of snow and rain has provided sufficient water to fill important wetlands in key breeding habitats. We hope this will result in good production and another great flight of birds migrating in the fall.”

Most species’ populations, such as Mallard and Blue-winged Teal, remain significantly above the long-term average, while others, including Lesser and Greater Scaup and Northern Pintail are below average.

This chart from Ducks Unlimited summarizes total duck numbers from the last two years and how they compare to the long-term average:

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While this year’s overall numbers look good, Scott Yaich, DU’s chief biologist, said: “We remain concerned with the continuing and escalating loss of nesting habitat in these areas. Because ducks need water, wetlands to hold the water, and upland habitats to successfully raise their young, the ongoing loss of grasslands and wetlands across the Prairie Pothole Region will increasingly impact the number of ducks in the fall flight in the long-term.” — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

Read the reports

T.E. Dahl, 2014. Status and Trends of Prairie Wetlands in the United States 1997 to 2009, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, DC. PDF

Nathan L. Zimpfer, Walter E. Rhodes, Emily D. Silverman, Guthrie S. Zimmerman, and Ken D. Richkus, 2014. Trends in Duck Breeding Populations 1955-2014, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, DC. PDF