North Dakota Spring Breeding Duck Index Lowest Since 1994 But Still 23 Percent Above Long-Term Average, Game And Fish Says

North Dakota’s spring breeding duck numbers were down 15 percent from last year, but mallards remained fairly stable at 5 percent lower than last year, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department said in reporting results from its 70th annual spring breeding duck survey. The water index was up 78 percent from last year, but extremely dry conditions across most of the state during last year’s survey make this year’s findings misleading, the department said. (Photo by Craig Bihrle, North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

Recent localized heavy rains aside, it’s been a dry spring across most of North Dakota, and the conditions appear to be affecting breeding duck numbers.

Based on results from the Game and Fish Department’s 70th annual spring breeding duck survey, the duck index in May was 2.95 million birds, down 15 percent from last year.

According to Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck, the the index is below 3 million for the first time since 1994, but it still stands 23 percent above the long-term average (1948-2016) and is the 24th highest on record.

“Fortunately, we still have a lot of ducks,” Szymanski said.

Here’s the rest of a news release Game and Fish sent out this morning about breeding duck numbers:

Survey results indicate canvasbacks (up 23 percent), pintails (up 5 percent) and redheads (up 2 percent) increased from their 2016 estimates, while shovelers were unchanged.

Mallards were fairly stable (down 5 percent), while ruddy ducks showed the largest decrease (down 36 percent).

All other ducks were 16 percent to 28 percent below last year’s numbers. However, most species, with the exception of pintails, blue-winged teal and ruddy ducks, were well-above the 69-year average.

The number of temporary and seasonal wetlands was higher than last year, as figures show the spring water index is up 78 percent. However, Szymanski said that is misleading.

“Last year’s water index was very low during our survey, and was followed by a lot of rain in late spring,” he added. “When you combine that with winter snow melt, the temporary and seasonal wetlands had water during the survey, but were struggling to hang on. It’s been quite dry since we did the survey, and once again those wetlands are dry.”

Szymanski said because of habitat concerns, it looks like there might be a struggle to produce ducks, with the exception of the northeast portion of the state and to a lesser degree the northern tier.

“We’ve lost a lot of nesting cover since 2007, and now we are going into summer without much water,” he said. “I just don’t think the ducks will have very good production in a lot of areas.”

Szymanski said there were also areas struggling to attract pairs of ducks where he expected to see better numbers. “There was a fair bit of water in bigger basins, but those larger water areas aren’t attractive to ducks, as they look for smaller wetlands, and those were drying up.”

The water index is based on basins with water, and does not necessarily represent the amount of water contained in wetlands or the type of wetlands represented.

Szymanski said the July brood survey will provide a better idea of duck production and insight into expectations for this fall.

“And as we have seen in recent years, a lot depends on bird movements before and during hunting seasons, and weather patterns during the migration,” he said.