Drought affects duck hunting wetlands in the Northern Plains

Published 11:25 pm Friday, September 22, 2017

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BISMARCK, N.D. — When duck hunters in the Northern Plains take to the field this fall, they will find fewer wetlands where they can set up their blinds and float their decoys following a summer of devastating drought.

The number of duck-hunting wetlands in North Dakota is down about 40 percent from last year, to the lowest level in nine years, according to the Game and Fish Department’s annual fall wetland survey.

“Some much-needed August precipitation helped green up many areas of the state, but not enough to reverse declining wetland conditions,” Migratory Game Bird Biologist Andy Dinges said.

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The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows 87 percent of North Dakota is in some stage of drought. The number of wetlands north and east of the Missouri River — about three-fourths of the state — is down from last fall, according to Dinges. With many that remain, “hunters should expect some wider mud margins … possibly making hunting more difficult,” he said.

The situation is much the same in South Dakota, where about 72 percent of the state is in some stage of drought. There might be plenty of ducks, but hunters (even those who have some of the best duck decoy spreads) may have to travel farther to find them, said Harold Bickner, state chairman for the Ducks Unlimited conservation group.

“I don’t think there’s any question it’s going to have an impact (on hunting) in some areas,” he said. “In our (south central) area here, we were really dry in July, and the ducks all moved. They have pretty much moved to big waters” that didn’t dry up.

The prevalence of wetlands isn’t the only determining factor in how many ducks will be available to hunters in the region. Weather conditions and migration patterns as the birds move south from Canada also are big influences.

An annual study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service released in August estimates the 2017 continental duck population at 47.3 million birds, down slightly from last year but 34 percent higher than the long-term average.

South Dakota’s duck season opens Sept. 30 in some areas and Oct. 14 in others. Saturday is opening day for duck hunting in North Dakota, and also in neighboring Minnesota, where drought was not widespread this summer.

The waterfowl migration report of the season, released Thursday by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said duck hunters should expect fair to good numbers in most areas on opening weekend, based on reports from wildlife managers across the state. The number of breeding ducks in Minnesota is good, and there was a big wild rice crop in northern Minnesota that should encourage ducks to stick around.