There's no question the duck population in Minnesota has seen better days. Hunters know it, as some hold on to images of a time when blue skies were merely a backdrop for black blankets of flying ducks. The Department of Natural Resources knows it and is working on plans to revert the scene back to those glory days.
Statistics tell a big part of the story, but hunters will find out Saturday just how much of an effect habitat issues ducks are facing have had on the big picture.
"Southwest Minnesota still remains a very good area for duck hunting, particularly late in the season for mallards," said DNR waterfowl specialist Steve Cordts. "Based on the number of breeding ducks in North and South Dakota this year, I would expect a decent year in Southwest Minnesota."
Cordts said record-high numbers of breeding ducks were counted in eastern portions of the Dakotas this year because of a wet spring. Most of the ducks - about 75 percent - that are harvested in this part of the state, he said, are migrants that cross southwest Minnesota during flight between Arkansas and North Dakota.
However, because of the later opener this year and a cold front that moved across the state this week, he said it's likely some blue-winged teal and wood ducks might have already departed.
"They'll still be common in the bag this weekend," Cordts said, "but our better openers are typically when we have lots of teal and wood ducks still present."
"Having a little bit of a later opener does have an impact," said C.B. Bylander, DNR Fish and Wildlife Division outreach chief.
"If you've got an opener several days into October versus September, some of those cold winds could push out some of the early migrants. On the other hand, those winds can also push more ducks down from Canada to replace those. Hunters might see a different mixture of ducks in the bag based on the later opener."
Ducks in Minnesota are facing numerous challenges, including major upland and wetland habitat issues that impact both breeding and migratory ducks. One of those challenges lies in the quality of shallow lakes - a point not lost on the DNR and sportman's clubs throughout the area.
Throughout the last few years, the state has worked to improve water quality in small lakes locally and statewide through modest means (rotenone treatments that kill off rough fish species) and more high-tech ones (electronic fish barriers that prevent unwanted fish from entering lakes). In Murray County, two shallow lakes - Lake Maria and Fulda Lake have both benefitted from special attention from the DNR. Maria, a 425-acre waterfowl lake in Lake Sarah Township, became the face of water restoration in Minnesota in 2006, serving as the cornerstone fund-raising project of the 2005 Ducks, Wetlands and Clean Water Rally at the state Capitol. Money raised was put toward the installation of an electronic fish barrier and pump to drain the lake.
Further south, the 179-acre Fulda Lake also has a brighter future after the construction of a variable crest water control structure that also allows for the lake's water level to be lowered. That lake, too, had an electronic fish barrier installed.
It's these kind of lakes, Cordts said, that migrating ducks use for foraging and resting during the fall. But because the water quality of so many of these smaller lakes has deteriorated, leading to the dying off of aquatic vegetation, less food is available for species that eat seeds and invertebrates, and "migrating ducks don't find sufficient forage when they arrive in Minnesota and will move elsewhere," said Cordts. "Loss of habitat also impacts the numbers of ducks that settle and breed in Minnesota. We lost somewhere around 60,000 acres of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) habitat last year. That amounts to a one mile-wide swath of grass 100 miles long.
"Particularly in that region of the state (Southwest Minnesota), where few wetlands remain, (those lakes) play a large role in providing quality habitat for both resident and migrant ducks," he added. "The main issues are water quality caused by excessive fish and lack of submersed aquatic vegetation and poor water clarity. I think the role they play after habitat improvements goes beyond duck hunters. Duck hunters have been vocal that fewer or no ducks were using the lakes, but the benefits go toward area farmers, local residents, bird watchers, etc. with improved habitat and water quality."
The combination of the condition of shallow lakes, along with a troubling loss of CRP land - about 38,000 acres of CRP was expired in 2008, and the DNR expects a 72,000-acre loss this year. That number is expected to accelerate in the future, meaning more of an uphill battle for the DNR, which is already dealing with what are sobering numbers for duck hunters.
According to the DNR's Waterfowl Breeding Population Survey for Minnesota, mallard numbers in 2009 are 19 percent below the 10-year average (but is still 6 percent above the 40-year average). The blue-winged teal breeding population index is 11 percent lower than the 2008 estimate and 36 percent below the 10-year average. The combined population index of other ducks, excluding scaup, decreased 41 percent from last year, and was 29 percent below the 10-year average and 5 percent below the long-term average of 179,000.
"The general complaint is that duck hunting success is less than it was historically and continues to be below expectations," Cordts said.
Other duck numbers, excluding scaup, decreased 41 percent to 169,568 and were 29 percent below the 10-year average and 5 percent below the long-term average.
The total duck population index, excluding scaup, was 507,000, which was 31 percent lower than 2008 and 19 percent below the long-term average