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Many species of ducks, like the Mallard pictured here, may soon decrease in populations in North America as key habitat in the Prairie Pothole Region continues to dry up due to drought conditions. (Chris Huber/Republic)

Waterfowl could take hit from drought

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outdoors Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

The Prairie Pothole Region, known to many as North America's duck factory, may see a big dip in production this year as drought continues to plague the area.

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The region, which extends from the eastern Dakotas and western Minnesota into southern Canada, is home to more than 50 percent of North American migratory waterfowl, but without water, those potholes may dry up and duck populations will suffer.

The lack of water has many concerned, including senior waterfowl biologist for South Dakota Game Fish & Parks, Rocco Murano.

"Right now the ducks aren't winning," he said.

The Prairie Pothole Region is used as a breeding and nesting area for many different species of ducks across the country, and water is critical.

"Less water means less ducks in South Dakota, and it means less ducks on the continent," Murano said.

"The Dakotas are the most productive area for duck breeding in North America, and that won't happen if there is no water."

Ducks need a series of wetland types for breeding and behavior reasons.

First, a shallow wetland is needed in early spring for hens, because the wetlands provide invertebrates as food to ensure a good clutch of eggs. Duck populations in a specific area also need a large amount of shallow wetlands, because Mallards, for example, are extremely territorial during their spring courting rituals.

Second, deeper wetlands are needed to raise ducklings once the clutch has hatched. Lower water levels mean ducklings and hens spend more time on land, which makes them easier targets for predation.

"If we don't see significant snow this winter, we aren't going to have the amount of wetlands we need here in South Dakota," Murano said.

"As we saw already last spring, the duck population is directly tied to the amount of water we have."

Murano said migration patterns of ducks will likely change this spring as well without significant snowfall.

"Ducks like Mallards and pintails will just keep heading north until they find the water they need," he said. "They will keep going all the way to the Boreal forest or Artic regions if they need to."

Because of environmental factors in those regions, Murano said duck broods that come out of those areas are less productive then the ones produced in the Prairie Pothole Region.

"Blue-winged teal, for example, don't have a choice, they have to breed in this region," Murano said. "So they will either try to reproduce and not be very successful or they won't breed at all this year."

Murano said waterfowl conservation groups can only do so much to help duck populations.

"They can set the table, so to speak, by conserving wetlands and nesting areas, but without water the ducks are still going to suffer," he said.

On the other hand, Murano said the dry conditions have allowed farmers to till or insert drain tiles into areas that were once great habitat for ducks.

Murano said with high commodity prices, he is seeing an alarming trend of more wetlands habitat becoming farmland.

"Well, like I said before, you can set the table, or you can pull the tablecloth right off," Murano said.

Despite the dry conditions, Murano believes South Dakota still has some of the best waterfowl hunting in the country, though he admits hunters will have to change their strategy if drought conditions continue.

"We won't see as many local ducks here when the season starts if it stays dry," Murano said. "We still might get a migration flight, but the local numbers just won't be like they have been."

Ducks will also likely be concentrated on large bodies of water.

As far as bag limits for ducks being affected this coming hunting season, Murano thinks that is unlikely, but it is something that could happen in the future.

He said recommendations on bag limits are directly tied to midcontinent Mallard populations and if those populations decline because of dry years and habitat loss, then hunting limits would likely decrease as well.

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