Process for Setting Waterfowl Hunting Regulations

By Mike Olinde, Research Program Manager and Dr. E. Jane Luzar, LSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Agribusiness

There has always been a great interest in duck hunting in Louisiana because of their abundant numbers in the state during the winter. However, with increased communication between hunters, between hunters and wildlife managers, and the use of mass communication, like internet websites and waterfowl forums, the interest in the processes by which ducks are managed and harvest regulations are determined has been heightened. Have you ever wondered how or what is the process for setting waterfowl regulations?

One of the first things you should know is that neither the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission nor the Department have the authority to determine the bag limit, season length or dates for waterfowl, better known as the Framework waterfowl hunting regulations. This authority lies with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) because of the migratory nature of the birds. The Service receives extremely broad guidance on how to manage this international resource through the Migratory Bird Treaty that includes the United States and the countries of Canada, Mexico, Japan, and the Soviet Union. Some of these agreements date to 1916. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 actually empowered the federal government to annually develop waterfowl hunting regulations. Our Commission can only select days, bag limit and dates within the framework of options permitted by the Service. This contrasts sharply with the Commission's total authority for the establishment of resident game seasons and bags.

The Service uses a number of surveys to annually monitor the size and distribution of waterfowl populations. These include May Breeding Population Surveys, May Pond Counts, Production Surveys, Migration/Mid-Winter Population Surveys, Harvest and Parts (Wings and Tails) Surveys and an extensive Leg-Banding Program. Some of these surveys date to the mid-1930's, and some of their most recent surveys are reported at: http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/reports/reports.html.The most comprehensive data collection efforts began in 1955 with the initiation of the May Breeding Population Survey. This survey covers some 1.3 million square miles with transects flown throughout most of the duck breeding habitat in the northern United States and much of Canada to count breeding pairs of 10 species of ducks. A sample of these aerial surveys is then checked on the ground to insure accuracy of the aerial data. Information from these collective surveys is considered each year when hunting regulations are established. The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries contributes annually to the Service survey process by conducting mid-winter aerial surveys in Louisiana and sending biologists to the annual Parts Survey (Wing Bee) and to Canada to assist in duck and goose banding.

National Regulatory Process

The states participate in the Service regulatory process through the Flyway Council system. There are 4 Flyways nationwide and Louisiana is in the Mississippi Flyway, which includes the 14 states roughly west of the Appalachian Mountain Range, and east of Texas. Each state and Canadian province has 1 member on the Council. This system was developed in the early 1950's as an administrative system to coordinate waterfowl hunting regulations and other conservation issues. A state's Flyway Council member is usually a high level administrative biologist of the state wildlife agency or its Director. A Flyway Technical committee, composed of waterfowl biologists, serves as consultants to each Council as they deliberate various waterfowl issues. Finally, the Service has a Service Regulations Committee (SRC), which is composed of 6 high level administrators, that listens to input from their staff, a Council representative, conservation organizations and private individuals. The SCR then makes its recommendation to the Director of the Service and the Secretary of the Interior who ultimately establish the regulation framework. As one might expect, this process has an extended timeline. The process begins in February and continues through early August when proposals by the Service are finally published and provided to the states and general public for comments or action

So what do biologists use to develop their recommendations at the Flyway level? Historically, the various surveys were used as general guides for recommendations. Today, a slightly different tool is used - in addition to the surveys.The management system known as "Adaptive Harvest Management" that was developed for use in the waterfowl regulation setting process. The Mallard Breeding Population and May Pond Counts on the breeding grounds are 2 factors that drive the Adaptive Harvest model used by the Service as a tool to determine the number of days of duck hunting and daily bag to allow. Under the system, there are currently 3 options: Restrictive, Moderate and Liberal. Depending on the option the model predicts, the season length can range from as few as 30 days to as many as 60 while the bag limit is either 3 or 6 ducks with varying restrictions on total mallards and hen mallards.

 

Option Season Length Daily Bag Limit (total/mallards/hen mallards Latest Hunt Date
Restrictive 30 days (3/2/1) Sunday nearest Jan. 20
Moderate 45 days (6/4/1) Last Sunday in January
Liberal 60 days (6/4/1) Last Sunday in Januar

 

State Regulatory Process

At the state level, once the Service has established the season length and bag limit frameworks, the Department makes hunting season dates and bag recommendations to our Commission. For the general waterfowl season, this is done at the August Commission meeting. The Department's biological staff uses a number of factors in developing its recommendation including historical duck migration patterns as determined by aerial surveys conducted by Wildlife Division personnel, historical marsh and weather conditions, and public input.

The waterfowl hunting season dates have traditionally opened in the West Zone of the state the first weekend in November when 55 days of hunting were allowed during the mid-1970's and early 1980's. This time was selected for a combination of reasons including (1) duck numbers, (2) water level conditions in the marshes and (3) traditional harvest area. Our waterfowl surveys have shown that large numbers ducks are in the coastal marshes during November, particularly blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, gadwall, wigeon, northern shoveler and northern pintail. Water level is generally lower in our coastal marshes during November as compared to December and January. As a result, duck feeding (and hunting) conditions are also generally better at this time for most coastal marshes.

Flooded agricultural lands such as rice and soybeans and bottomland hardwood forest are also important to ducks and duck hunters, but not as important as our coastal marshes. Size and availability of water certainly plays a role in determining this relative importance. For example, our coastal marshes cover some 4 million acres. In contrast, rice production generally occurs on about 600,000 acres in Louisiana of which about one-third is second cropped. Coastal marshes in southwest Louisiana provide vast areas of waterfowl habitat and account for the majority of the dabbling duck harvest in the state. As a result, coastal marshes are also extremely important to Louisiana waterfowling and its associated economics. For example, Cameron Parish, which includes almost 1 million acres of marshland, generally accounts for about 60-80% of the regional harvest and 30-50% of the statewide harvest of these ducks.

The tasks of recommending and establishing seasons are often difficult for the Department and the Commission. When it comes to the duck season for the West Zone, the dilemma is that marsh hunting is generally better in earlier November before the rains raise the water levels in the marsh. However, hunting is better in the rice country and other agricultural areas in late November and December after the rains flood the fields and marsh conditions have deteriorated. We attempt to accommodate (which often means develop compromises) sociological and demographic concerns when biology is not the primary issue. To this end, responding to input from the public, the opening date in the West Zone was moved to the second weekend in November and the second split closed later in January a few years ago. The East Zone season dates are usually later and run until the end of the framework.

Public Opinion

An integral part of the process for setting waterfowl hunting regulations is providing opportunity for public input. Public comment periods are specified in the Federal Register to gather public opinion information prior to setting the Framework regulations. Similarly, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission and the Department make regular press releases and offer time at Commission meetings to accept and record statements of public opinion. Prior to the 2005 season-setting process, the Department solicited public comment via this internet site to make it easier for hunters or other wildlife constituents to comment on proposed alternative waterfowl hunting regulations.

In a continuing effort to understand the desires of our hunters, the Department conducts periodic special surveys. In the spring of 2005, the Department, cooperating with the LSU School of Renewable Natural Resources conducted a mail survey of state duck stamp buyers. Over 6,000 waterfowl hunters were asked to share their opinions about recent waterfowl hunting quality in Louisiana and possible changes in the waterfowl hunting seasons structure and indicate their preferences for alternative management strategies. In addition, hunters were asked to provide information on their duck hunting characteristics. Preliminary results of this survey were presented to the Commission in November, 2005 and can be seen in the Research section.

As you can see, the waterfowl regulation setting process is quite involved. The Department listens and responds to constituent concerns. It is actively pursuing avenues and information that allow development of seasons which accommodate the hunting public's highly varied desires as much as possible.