Uncertainties have Alaska duck hunters guessing

Posted: Thursday, September 07, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- A convergence of climatic events in Canada may have created a boom in Alaska ducks this year, though so far the number of waterfowlers in some popular areas has been low.

Opening day of the waterfowl season Friday (Sept. 1) found average numbers of ducks in Southcentral Alaska marshes and relatively few hunters, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

''I can't tell you what's going on,'' said Palmer area biologist Herman Greise, who wondered if hunters were off chasing moose or just decided to wait until the weekend.

What they missed on the Palmer Hayflats, he said, were some pretty good chances at geese. There were more big birds than in past years, he said, along with mallards, gadwalls, widgeon and teal.

Overall, Greise said, ''it was a lackluster opener,'' but with a bright underside.

''There was a lot more restraint shown out there than in some past years,'' he said.

The first shots weren't fired until two minutes before legal shooting time, he said -- a reasonable margin of error for a wristwatch.

Hunters held their fire so well that geese got within range of many before the blasting started, Greise said.

That's not always the case; often the first hunter within 75 yards of a goose starts shooting, scattering the rest.

The useful range of a shotgun is 40 to 45 yards. The simple rule for judging range is this: If you can't distinguish colors on the duck or goose, it's out of range.

Spring waterfowl surveys showed Alaska duck numbers up 80 percent over the 10-year average, said Tom Rothe, waterfowl coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Of course, the average was skewed by the string of poor years in the early 1990s, he said. Only late in the decade did Alaska waterfowl populations begin to climb.

A better comparison may be with the strong showing of ducks last year. There is no 80 percent jump there, but the picture still looks rosy.

Dabblers mallards, pintails and widgeon were up 29 percent this spring over last; divers scaup and canvasbacks jumped 33 percent.

Here's what some biologists think happened:

Several years of spring rains on the Canadian prairies, primary breeding grounds for all North American waterfowl, boosted duck populations to record numbers across the continent.

Then came this year's drought on the prairies. Millions of birds winging north got to Canada to find a shortage of nesting sites. Some of those birds, it would appear, continued on to Alaska.

''The total population of breeding ducks found by aerial surveys in parts of Canada and the northern United States that have traditionally been surveyed fell to approximately 41.8 million birds,'' the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported. ''That number represents a decline of nearly 4 percent from last year's record index of 43.4 million birds, but is still 27 percent above the long-term average breeding population since surveys began in 1955.''

Alaska duck numbers are included in that national survey, but what is not reported is the regional population changes caused by water shortages on the prairies.

Consider this: While pintail populations were down slightly nationally, they were up a whopping 42 percent in Alaska. Only one thing can account for that.

''There had to be some overflight going on,'' Rothe said.

The trick, he added, is sorting out overflight numbers from the steady growth in Alaska waterfowl populations.

Are the extra birds the offspring of birds that were here last year, or are they ducks that would have nested in Canada under other circumstances?

No one knows. But what biologists do know is that Alaska had a significant increase in breeding birds this spring.

''Our duck numbers are in pretty good shape,'' Rothe said.

Theoretically, this should translate into excellent fall waterfowling, but it's no guarantee. Sixty to 90 percent of birds shot by the average waterfowl hunter in the fall are ducks of the year, meaning that nesting success matters most.

If all those extra breeders that came to Alaska this spring were successful in producing bountiful numbers of young, then this waterfowl season could be phenomenal.

If, on the other hand, they reproduced poorly -- possibly because of being forced to fly a thousand miles or so beyond their planned nesting areas -- then the season could end up just average.

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