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Birdshot and backlashes

The Department of Natural Resources is holding a number of hearings to determine how to revitalize declining duck populations. There is not a whole lot of concern over geese, which are not only at peak numbers but have become a problem in some areas. But ducks are another story.For at least 70 years that this writer can recall, various wildlife agencies have been concerned with declining duck populations, loss of habitat, lead poisoning and other factors impacting migratory game birds. We have been involved not only with government wildlife agencies but also private sportsmen’s associations such as Ducks Unlimited which have collected and spent millions of dollars in restoring duck habitat.Much has been accomplished. There are numerous state and federal waterfowl refuges aimed at protecting ducks during migrations. Some of the better marsh areas have been converted to government ownership to preserve them in a natural state. Still, duck numbers have not increased except for some species such as the wood duck which was rescued from the brink of extinction. Some species have shown decided decreases, hence the concern.Some of the decline in Minnesota may be due to a shift in migratory patterns of ducks. There are plenty of migrants each fall in the Dakotas; but then, there always were. Through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and points south, duck numbers appear down. What to do?The most immediate method is by control of the harvest - limits on how many of each duck species can be shot each fall. Every state is assigned a quota by the federal government and each state, understandably, tries to get the best deal for its hunters. Duck limits fluctuate from year to year as wildlife managers attempt to provide maximum shooting opportunities and still retain sufficient birds for spring nesting. Good trick.The simplest way to increase ducks would be to have a closed season. Harvest none for one year. But too much money is tied up in duck hunting. Government agencies depend upon license fees, duck stamp fees, gun and ammunition sales. Sports stores depend on sales of equipment. It gets complicated. One thing we will never see is duck populations at levels they were a century ago. Much of the nation’s original marshland has been converted to farms. There are some government programs to pay farmers to preserve marshes. Other than some areas where landowners can commercialize hunting, there is not much advantage for the farmer to be concerned with ducks. But perhaps there could be.In Europe, wildlife is treated as a crop like beans or wheat. Game harvested on a farm can be sold by the farmer in a market. Thus farmers have a cash incentive to provide conditions which benefit wildlife. He “farms” for wildlife. Not so here. In the U.S., wildlife is the property of the state. It belongs to the public and that prevents its sale.In Europe, hunters harvest the game, but the farmer owns it. The farmer can charge the hunter for any birds he wants to take home. We have a somewhat similar system in operation on game farms where hunters pay by the bird. Some people don’t like that idea. Some do.About the only thing we can be sure of is that duck populations will probably not show any marked increase and wildlife agencies like the Minnesota DNR will continue holding meetings far into the foreseeable future to figure what to do about it, probably with no more success than previous years. Wildlife managers simply have few options available.But it is fun to talk about it and there will be a lot of talking.

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