Bringing up the subject of global warming is one of the quickest ways to get you kicked out of many a duck blind, second only to the praising of President Barack Obama.
But, unlike Obama, global warming — or, if you prefer, climate change — isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, with Arkansas’ blazing summer of record temperatures serving as another anecdotal example, climate scientists around the world have collected data over the last year that suggest previous computer modeling has underestimated the coming change.
The first decade of the new millennium will be the warmest on record, topping the last decade. And 2010 will almost assuredly go down as the warmest year on record, edging 2007. In July it hit triple digits in Moscow, Russia, and weather sites in Finland for the first time in recorded history. (The Moscow records date to 1879.)
Because it’s too hot to even think about getting an early start repairing and brushing-up duck blinds for September’s early teal hunting season, it’s as good a time as any to check the pulse of Arkansas duck experts on the subject of global warming.
“Climate change is just a frustrating issue,” Luke Naylor, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s waterfowl program coordinator. “I think this issue quickly polarizes people and makes us lose sight of other critical issues such as past and ongoing reduction in habitat extent and quality.”
In other words, the subject of climate change can cloud your thinking. And if you want your judgment clouded even further, look no further than seemingly conflicting scientific studies done by Arkansas biologists.
“We are losing our ducks; it’s happening right now,” said James C. Bednarz, a professor of wildlife ecology at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. “In the last 15 to 20 years, a lot more ducks are staying up north [in the Mississippi Flyway].”
Bednarz and Thomas J. Benson, an ASU graduate student, completed a study last October entitled, “Climate-Related Shifts in Winter Duck Distribution.”
Using independent sources of midwinter waterfowl inventories from state wildlife agencies and Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, they found “increases in waterfowl numbers in northern states and decreases in southern states between 1955 and 2004.”
Benson and Bednarz examined potential alternative causes to explain changes in duck numbers within the Mississippi Flyway, including changes in crop production, harvest intensity, nesting productivity and climate change over 50 years. Using modeling approaches, they showed that climate change had a 99 percent probability of explaining the shift in mallard numbers in the flyway, while the other potential causes had less than 1 percent chance of explaining the results.
Now for the clouding: “We found no evidence of changes in the harvest distribution of mallards. We believe that the late 1990s were years of exceptionally high harvest in the lower Mississippi Flyway and the slight shifts northward since 2000 reflect a return to harvest distribution similar to those of the early 1980s.”
That is part of the conclusion of a study done by Adam W. Green of the University of Arkansas’ biological sciences department and David G. Kremetz of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit on the UA-Fayetteville campus. It was published in the Journal of Wildlife Management in 2008.
If you want to get in a good argument that won’t get you thrown out of a duck blind while sitting under bird-less skies, start a discussion of what state is doing the most to “short-stop” migrating mallards. The term “short-stop” refers to land changes, like leaving more grain in the agricultural fields and providing more unhuntable “rest areas” for waterfowl in the states north of Arkansas.
You’ll get lots of theories on that, with most of the Arkansas anger directed at the states of Missouri and Illinois.
However, banded duck recovery data and harvest data showed “small annual variations but no permanent or semi-permanent shifts in migration,” according to Green and Kremetz.
“Arkansas is the central location of most mallard harvest in the United States with Stuttgart, Arkansas, at the center of this distribution,” they noted before their study determined that those facts remain relatively unchanged.
Want some more clouds in your mind?
“A big difference between our study and the Green & Kremetz study is that they look at harvest, while we looked at the numbers of ducks [mostly post-harvest],” Bednarz said. “The overall harvest effort [hunter days] in Arkansas and Louisiana is much greater than in Missouri and Illinois.
“I believe that the results of both studies are accurate.”
So, what’s an Arkansas duck hunter supposed to think? For certain, the griping may have reached an all-time high last season, as weird as it was, with its combination of heavy flooding followed by bursts of hot-then-cold daily temperatures during the 60-day season.
Both local expert duck hunter observations and AGFC aerial surveys can explain that with one simple fact: too much water.
“It’s hard to judge how many ducks we have when there’s that much water,” said James Overstreet. “They didn’t come last year to the same flooded 40-acre fields they have before because there was too much other habitat. Why would a duck go somewhere it’s going to get shot at?”
Overstreet, a freelance photographer, has been on ESPNoutdoors.com’s “duck trek” from Minnesota to Louisiana each of the last two seasons. In addition, he owns and moderates the website ArkansasDuckTalk.com. When possible, Overstreet will arrange his schedule to allow him as many as 55 hunting days in a 60-day Arkansas season.
“Three years ago was the best one I can remember in Bayou Meto in a long time,” said Overstreet of the popular 34,000-acre AGFC Wildlife Management Area located between Pine Bluff and Stuttgart.
So far, Overstreet isn’t ready to accept any theories of global climate change showing its effects yet in Arkansas’ duck season.
Naylor, in the AGFC’s aerial waterfowl surveys, saw the same thing Overstreet did in observing locations of Arkansas’ duck populations last season.
“Many ducks have been using non-traditional habitats such as scrub-shrub habitat in flooded river bottoms,” Naylor reported after a mid-January survey. “With so much water across the landscape, ducks will likely remain scattered.”
It’s difficult for a duck hunter to leave a parcel of land he and some friends have leased for $10,000 a season and go hunting for ducks in unfamiliar places — hence, the considerable grumbling.
The coming season won’t reflect any structural changes, as Arkansas for the 14th year in a row will get a 60-day hunting season and a six-duck daily duck bag limit (four mallards).
That’s as good as an Arkansas duck hunter can ask for. And you should understand that the state’s waterfowlers have been complaining since the 1999-2000 season, when an estimated 1.126 million mallards were killed in Arkansas. That number declined rapidly to around 500,000 by 2003.
Recently compiled data for Arkansas’ 2009-10 season showed 605,672 mallards killed, actually a slight drop from the season before, which was 641,431. But all the previous seasons since 2003 have been in the 500,000 range. So last season was a slight downturn from the 2008-09 season, but still better than the five seasons before 2008-09.
In other words, last season might not have been as bad as some hunters thought.
It’s only natural to complain if you were part of that 1999-2000 season, or the other good ones surrounding it, and the harvest data shows a near 50 percent drop in the seasons since.
“Our perception is usually based on our last positive experience,” Naylor noted. “I wouldn’t say the [migration] pattern has permanently changed, but that the pattern has been in flux, and always will be.
“That one season, we killed almost as many mallards in Arkansas as we do total ducks in a normal season. That season was a distortion, more an exception than the rule.
“But year after year, Arkansas places at or near the top of mallard harvest over any other place in the country. If there have been massive changes, why does Arkansas still rank so high compared to surrounding states?”
Naylor has one more question for doubters of mallard migration to Arkansas: “Why do we always have the ‘Halloween mallards.’ There are typically lots of mallards in Arkansas by early November. Why do those ducks come here? They’re not doing it because of snowfall to the north.
“I just think they are a very traditional bird. What brought mallards to Arkansas in the first place? Extensive flooding, and I still think that’s what drives the system.”
Look Around for Trends
Bednarz and Benson deserve more time to defend their study than was illustrated here. Bednarz doesn’t doubt what the data revealed in either piece of work. While his study concluded with data through 2004, Bednarz says, “My sense is that these trends have held and might be even stronger since 2005.”
Maybe Arkansas duck hunters should be looking at the breeding grounds for glimpses at the future. A South Dakota State University study completed in 2005 noted that increases in average temperature over the Prairie Pothole region of the northern U.S. and southern Canada could cut the duck population in half as early as 2050.
The recent data on an increasingly warming planet can’t help but make that study feel more dooming for duck hunters than it did when released five years ago.
So, what’s a duck hunter to do? Nothing short of a historically high migration, circa 1999, will stop the annual complaining. Few of those hunting today remember Arkansas’ 25-day, two-duck limit of 1962-63, or even the 30-day, three-duck seasons of 1988-1994 (six seasons).
Even though much evidence suggests that what’s changing in the world’s climate now is more man-made than cyclical, duck seasons have always been cyclical. These past 14-straight 60-day, six-duck seasons aren’t going to last forever.
So, you’d best be ready for some change, no matter what you believe about global warming.
“Really, what we know now suggests our best options for dealing with future climate change is to provide functional, sustainable ecological systems in which wildlife can adapt to unknown future changes,” Naylor said. “That’s something we’ve been working at doing throughout the history of modern wildlife management.”
But wildlife management may have never dealt with any change like this.
Steve Wright is a freelance outdoors writer living in Fayetteville.