North Dakota waterfowl populations down due to severe drought

Newly released numbers from the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s (NDGFD) 74th annual breeding duck survey indicate a below-average breeding season for waterfowl. The main cause of the decline is lack of water – the 2021 May water index was down 80% from 2020, and nearly 68% below the 1948-2020 average in the state.

“These weather conditions are an early indicator of the broader drought across the North American prairies. And while these survey numbers and behavioral observations are sobering and indicate a decline in duck production in North Dakota, we must keep in mind that periodic drought on the prairies is a normal part of the climate cycle,” said Ducks Unlimited (DU) Chief Scientist Steve Adair. “While the drought persists, these periods allow wetlands to recycle nutrients and re-vegetate, setting the stage for a boom in populations when water returns.”

Ducks respond to drought in multiple ways, including reducing breeding effort, forgoing nesting altogether and dispersing to areas with more stable wetland conditions. For example, the Boreal Forest and other breeding regions will provide a stable baseline of production during drought as well as refuge for drought-displaced prairie ducks. DU, Ducks Unlimited Canada, Pew, First Nations and other partners have influenced the protection of more than 950 million acres in the Boreal Forest in the last 20 years.

Under the Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) system administered by the USFWS, upcoming waterfowl season’s bag limits and dates will remain the same, even with the expected decline in broods. This program is designed to adjust with habitat conditions and population sizes to allow sustainable harvest as conditions change. AHM prevents any significant impacts to the health of waterfowl populations, while also providing ample harvest opportunities.

“We’ve benefitted from above-average moisture on the breeding grounds for more than two decades, and this drought is a difficult, but necessary, part of the prairie climate cycle,” said DU Chief Conservation Officer Karen Waldrop. “Ducks Unlimited will continue our on-the-ground habitat work across North America to sustain waterfowl during tough times and to set the stage, so when the water returns to the prairies, waterfowl of all species will be able to get back to the record-setting populations we have seen in the recent past.”

Ducks Unlimited Inc. is the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving North America’s continually disappearing waterfowl habitats. Established in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 15 million acres thanks to contributions from more than a million supporters across the continent. Guided by science and dedicated to program efficiency, DU works toward the vision of wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever. For more information on our work, visit www.ducks.org.

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