As the recent poor to mediocre duck seasons have rolled by, the popularity of the blame game may have hit an all-time high with hunters. Global warming, short stopping on flooded corn up north, unprecedented hunting pressure, flyway shift, February “migration,” landowners hoarding ducks — the excuses go on and on. The theories seem to come into play any time the seasons are below what we, as Arkansas duck hunters, consider “good.”
Now, what defines a “good” season varies as much as the camo patterns we wear. Some people measure using detailed statistics tracked over time. Others measure by the eye test and base their rating solely on what they see over their duck holes. Then there are the networkers who take their experience and cobble together input from their duck-hunting circles of friends to develop an assessment.
And, unfortunately, another faction relies on social media, but that is a story for another day.
Most Arkansas duck hunters will look at the past five seasons and conclude the last two were better than the previous three but are still falling short of expectations. The science and statistics tell us the mallard population is holding steady but below the long-term average because of poor conditions on the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) breeding grounds. Dry conditions on the PPR have happened before and will again, as Mother Nature can be wildly inconsistent and harsh.
Despite the conditions, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) science-based Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) modeling is nowhere close to supporting a need to cut the duck season to 30 days — which is the newest hot topic within the blame game.
Most of this chatter comes from a contingent of duck hunters born in the late 1960s or early 1970s who have a little kid’s recollection of hunting. When we were of high school and college age in the late 1980s, there were six consecutive 30-day seasons because of an epic drought on the PPR and extremely poor duck production.
Those were the last of the 30-day seasons, and there have been only 10 seasons of 30 days or fewer since 1955. Four seasons after the last 30-day format (in 1993-94), the USFWS adopted the 60-day, six-duck structure we had enjoyed previously.
The clamoring for the 30-day season has even spread to those who have experienced nothing but a 60-day format. It’s become a cool thing to say, akin to persistently proclaiming one is a public land duck hunter or is using a cutdown duck call.
Theoretically, if the season is halved, hunters would harvest fewer ducks. As waterfowl scientists will tell you, “days kill ducks.” There seems to be an underlying wish that a 30-day season will cause many waterfowlers to abandon the sport, reducing overcrowding and pressure as well as high prices on leases and land. Only the devoted, hard-core hunters will stick out a significantly shortened season, the thinking goes, while the rest are out of luck.
That’s simply short-sighted (and selfish) logic and not best for the sport’s long term. A shorter season would lead to fewer duck stamps sold, reduced contributions to conservation organizations and fewer dollars allocated for wildlife through the Pittman Robertson Act tax on guns and ammo. More than ever, funding is needed for important conservation and habitat projects. Without those we wouldn’t even be discussing duck hunting because it would be over. Entirely over.
Unless all these fans of 30-day seasons pony up the dollars to replace those lost from people leaving the sport, duck hunting has zero chance of improving because of a decline in hunter numbers.
We won’t get 60-day seasons forever. Stretches more challenging than these last five years are sure to happen. When the May pond counts and USFWS Breeding Population Survey say the season has to dial back to 30 days with a two-duck limit, conditions have truly become awful.
The data used to set duck seasons have yet to support cutting to 30 days (it’s not even close) and likely won’t for 2024-2025, given this year’s wet spring on the PPR. So why jump to a framework designed to handle the worst conditions in the sport?
Instead of running hunters off, let’s keep growing, retaining and bringing back hunters so the dollars to mitigate habitat hardships don’t disappear. Because if the dollars dwindle, 30 days will go from being a trendy hypothetical to becoming the rule of the day.