Duck biologists recommend liberal season

JOHN McCOY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
Although wood ducks migrate south soon after West Virginia’s duck season opens, they are one of the state’s most popular duck species. Good wood duck populations throughout the eastern U.S. have waterfowl biologists calling for a liberal duck season this year.

If federal wildlife officials heed the recommendations of waterfowl biologists, West Virginia’s duck hunters can look forward to a nice, long season.

Members of the Atlantic Flyway Council, representing states from Florida to Maine and on north into Canada, met in Charleston earlier this week. The council’s mallard and wood duck technical committees recommended liberal seasons for their species, which happen to be the ones Mountain State hunters seek most.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials will make the final call on this year’s season lengths and bag limits, but those usually adhere pretty closely to the biologists’ recommendations.

The mallard and wood duck committees based their recommendation on Atlantic Flyway population estimates for the two species. Mallard committee chairman Bryan Swift announced an estimate of 860,000 for mallards in the eastern U.S. and Canada, half a million more than the threshold for a liberal season.

Members of the wood duck committee placed that species’ estimate at 800,000 birds in the same geographic area. Studies also showed that the number of breeding wood duck pairs rose 16 percent over the past year, and the breeding-pairs estimate is 11 percent above the five-year average.

West Virginia’s hunters enjoyed a 60-day duck season with a 6-duck bag limit in 2013-14, and appear likely to get a similarly liberal framework for 2014-15.

An additional tidbit of news out of the mallard technical committee is that flyway council members are entertaining the idea of a “four-splash” bag limit — four ducks of any description — to replace the convoluted five- to six-duck regulations in place for the past couple of decades.

For example, the regulations for West Virginia’s hunters’ six-duck limit in 2013-14 read like this:

“The daily bag limit of six (6) can include only two (2) pintails, four (4) long-tailed ducks, two (2) scaup, one (1) black duck, three (3) wood ducks, two (2) redheads, four (4) scoters, two (2) canvasback and four (4) mallards of which only two (2) may be hens.”

A growing number of biologists would like to simplify the regulations and allow hunters to take the first four birds they are able to shoot. The 2005 National Duck Hunter Survey showed that hunters are satisfied with killing four or fewer ducks a day and 50 or fewer per season.

Other surveys have shown that 90 percent of waterfowl hunters are intimidated by the complexity of duck-hunting regulations, and that inexperienced waterfowl hunters aren’t comfortable with their ability to identify flying ducks and make instantaneous decisions to shoot or hold fire. With those factors in mind, waterfowl biologists believe the four-bird, any-species limit might be a good fit.

One, it would allow hunters to take enough ducks to keep them happy; and two, it would remove from hunters the threat of accidentally breaking the law by shooting a duck not properly identified.

But before biologists make such a recommendation, they want to analyze its potential impact on less common duck species such as black ducks, wood ducks, scaup and canvasbacks.

Members of the mallard committee believe it would be a good idea to examine individual hunters’ harvest records to see how many of each species are being killed, and how the contents of hunters’ bags differ from region to region within the flyway.

Since 1991, all migratory-bird hunters have been required to fill out federal Hunter Information Program cards and submit them to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The cards detail each day’s harvest, in the order that the birds were killed.

Committee members believe that examining the HIP cards of every hunter who has killed four, five or six birds in a single day should give biologists a good idea of what future four-splash limits of ducks might look like.

Biologists don’t believe such a limit could cause much harm on a flyway-wide basis, but worry that hunters in regions where migrating species tend to congregate — wood ducks in Georgia, for example — might kill enough birds to affect the species’ overall population.

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