BATON ROUGE — A little more than one week before the start of the special teal hunting season in Louisiana, Larry Reynolds faced the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission on Thursday.
Reynolds, waterfowl study leader since 2008 for the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, talked about the status of the duck population going into the 2019-20 season. His report came on the heels of one of the most forgetful waterfowl hunting seasons in the Sportsman’s Paradise, one in which the estimated harvest was one of the lowest ever in Louisiana.
Based on this year’s BP Survey (Breeding Population and Habitat Survey), conducted jointly by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Canadian Wildlife Service since 1955, pegged the breeding duck population at 38.90 million, a 6 percent decrease from last year’s population of 41.19 million. Still, the number is 10 percent higher than the long-term average.
The 2019 survey marks the first time since 2008 that the estimated breeding duck population has fallen below 40 million, according to Delta Waterfowl.
Reynolds put it all in perspective three days ago in Baton Rouge. Before he spoke to the LWFC, he said there are a few silver linings, one of which isn’t the fact the blue-wing teal population is down about 16 percent to 5.43 million before the special teal hunting season in this state. Still, again, that’s 6 percent above the long-term average.
The fact teal numbers are up in the northern United States (unlike on Canadian prairies) gives hope to duck hunters far, far away in South Louisiana. Any success, or lack of it, all hinges on the teal production in the southern region of the waterfowl breeding grounds of North America.
“I’ve heard of really good teal populations in Iowa and the Dakotas,” Reynolds said, adding there were favorable water conditions in those states.
If the reports bear out, he said, “It’s good news for us. But that doesn’t guarantee anything.”
No, it doesn’t, particularly in the middle of a late summer heat wave and following months of flooding in the Midwest and South. Fewer agricultural fields were planted but, as the state waterfowl study leader said, teal aren’t big into agricultural fields anyway.
Teal prefer shallow wetland habitat, like mud flats, and rice fields that haven’t been harvested, Reynolds said.
“That’s where the best teal hunting is, where typically we see the best success,” he said.
Cooler weather would be advantageous for opening weekend, of course. As Reynolds knows all too well, that’s hit and miss when it comes to dealing with Mother Nature.
A few years ago, LDWF recommended and the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission approved a special teal hunting season later in September, one that began on a Friday and ended on a Saturday. What happened? There was a “freakish” cool spell that dropped deep into the state in early September. The teal migrated into the state and left before the September season held in their honor.
Reynolds, who plans to be hunting teal on his lease, realizes how popular this first shot at the ducks is among waterfowlers in Louisiana.
“Dove season and teal season are highly anticipated in this part of the country,” he said, adding it’s the first opportunity to get out the shotguns and shoot, no matter if the duck hunters are sweating buckets.
Reynolds and his staff are scheduled to conduct their first aerial waterfowl survey for the season this week. He’ll see what birds are down in late summer but has another goal.
“I’ll get my first look at habitat conditions. I expect far less annual seed production but I expect better SAV (submerged aquatic vegetation),” he said, noting much of the state was flooded or dealing with high water conditions most of the year.
The elephant in the room, the one he spoke about Thursday, remains the report from the U.S. Fish and wildlife Service. Ducks lost vast acreage of breeding grounds north of the border and the number of ponds declined up there, Reynolds said.
The breeding population numbers plummeted for some species, including blue-winged teal. Shovelers declined 13 percent to 3.65 million, 39 percent above the long-term average.
All three diving duck species surveyed showed declines in 2019. Redheads fell 27 percent to 730,000, putting them right at the long-term average. Canvasbacks dropped 5 percent to 650,000, but remain 10 percent above the long-term average. And scaup (greaters and lessers combined) declined 10 percent to 3.59 million, 28 percent below the long-term average. The breeding population numbers plummeted for some species, including blue-winged teal. Shovelers declined 13 percent to 3.65 million, 39 percent above the long-term average.
All three diving duck species surveyed showed declines in 2019. Redheads fell 27 percent to 730,000, putting them right at the long-term average. Canvasbacks dropped 5 percent to 650,000, but remain 10 percent above the long-term average. And scaup (greaters and lessers combined) declined 10 percent to 3.59 million, 28 percent below the long-term average.
Also, the only below-average population estimate among puddle ducks is for pintails, which dropped 4 percent to 2.27 million, 42 percent below the long-term average.
There are silver linings in this year’s report. Green-winged teal rose 4 percent to 3.18 million, 47 percent above the long-term average. Wigeon climbed slightly to 2.83 million, 8 percent above the long-term average.
Gadwalls climbed 13 percent to 3.26 million, putting them 61 percent above the long-term average.