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Ducks, no dynasty: Hunter numbers dropping in South Dakota

As the sun breaks the horizon today, many youngsters will take aim at their first feathered target when South Dakota’s 18th annual youth waterfowl hunt begins.

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Over the weekend, youths ages 15 and younger will climb into their duck blinds with a mentor, set decoys and march through the mud to chase mallards, teal and other waterfowl.

Waterfowl enthusiasts are worried, though, that the state’s duck-hunting tradition is waning. In the past decade, the number of resident waterfowl hunters in South Dakota has declined by 35 percent. The state Department of Game, Fish and Parks has estimated there were 12,979 resident waterfowl hunters in South Dakota last year, an all-time low in participation, according to records that date to the 1940s. Ten years ago, there were an estimated 19,640 resident waterfowl hunters.

The goal of the youth hunt is to introduce more children to waterfowl hunting. An adult mentor must accompany the youth on the hunt, and the adult is not allowed to shoot ducks but can harvest other in-season game such as Canada geese.

“The whole reason for youth waterfowl is to have a couple days where adults can take a youth out and the adults aren’t competing with the youth,” said South Dakota GF&P Senior Waterfowl Biologist Rocco Murano. “It’s just the youth able to shoot, and it exposes them to a low-stress, high-success environment. There’s also lower pressure, because there aren’t as many people out.”

Since 2009, the GF&P has surveyed hunters, asking them if they took someone out during the previous year’s youth waterfowl season. About 3 to 4.6 percent of people surveyed have participated in the youth season, which equates to about 1,000 to 1,500 kids being taken out annually over the special-event weekend, Murano said.

Historic numbers

South Dakota’s decline reflects a nationwide trend of fewer waterfowl hunters. Nearby states haven’t dropped as fast, though. In the past 10 years, Minnesota has seen an 11 percent decrease, North Dakota a 16 percent decrease and Iowa a 26 percent drop.

Meanwhile, South Dakota duck numbers have been strong. The 2010 and 2011 seasons were the two highest seasons ever in the statewide annual duck breeding pair and habitat survey. The survey showed there were 5.8 million ducks statewide in 2010 and 6.2 million in 2011, the highest on record. This year’s statewide breeding survey counted 4.4 million ducks.

“Before, as duck populations went up and down, so did duck hunter numbers,” Murano said. “Now we’re losing a big group of people. The baby boomer generation is who we’re losing.”

Resident waterfowl numbers in the state peaked in 1954 at 65,800 participants, according to the GF&P. That was right in the middle of the baby boomer generation, when more than 76 million babies were born between 1946 and 1964. Today, those who were born during that time are now 49 to 67 years old and are “aging out of duck hunting,” Murano said.

“A lot of these folks are in their 60s now, and duck hunting is a pretty physical thing,” he said, referring to wading through muddy swamps and dealing with typically cold, wet conditions. “A lot of folks will take up other outdoor pursuits that are a little easier to do once their knees start going or once they’re just not able to do it anymore.”

Beginning in about 1974, South Dakota hovered at 20,000 to 30,000 waterfowl hunters annually for about two decades. But the state has not had more than 20,000 waterfowl hunters since dipping to an estimated 19,640 in 2003. Waterfowl hunters have dropped in numbers 12 out of 16 years since 1996, which was the year the youth waterfowl season began.

Why numbers are dipping

Murano said the youth season has done a good job exposing new faces to hunting, but it’s not enough to stop the rapid decline. He said recruitment of youth hunters isn’t occurring fast enough to replace the loss of veteran hunters.

“The time commitment it takes — and kids are so involved in so many things now — hunter numbers in general are declining nationwide, and I think waterfowl hunters in my opinion are declining at a steeper rate because it’s so time-intensive,” Murano said. “You have to scout, you have to know what you’re doing, you have to buy a fair amount of equipment and it’s just not as easy to do as some of these competing interests.”

Jeff Heidelbauer, state chairman for South Dakota Ducks Unlimited, said although the loss of waterfowl hunters is concerning, it is still important to continue introducing youth to the sport. Heidelbauer, of Custer, participated in the youth waterfowl hunting weekend two years ago, taking a father and son who had never been duck hunting. Heidelbauer explained this weekend always seems to be a great chance to harvest blue-winged teal.

“Any opportunity when you can get kids out when the weather isn’t going to be terribly cold and you have a halfway decent chance at having some success their first time out is important,” said Heidelbauer, who’s held his position with DU for 2½ years. “It gets their appetite whetted and a chance to see what it’s all about.”

A 2008 report by the GF&P looking at the future of waterfowl hunters surveyed all resident hunters, asking why they would not hunt ducks in the future. The top three reasons were that they were too busy with family or work, they instead hunted pheasants, and they instead hunted big game.

In another survey listed in the same report, hunters said the top three reasons they decreased the frequency of hunting waterfowl is because of work obligations, family obligations and too much difficulty finding places to hunt.


Why should outdoor enthusiasts care if the state is losing waterfowl hunters?

The 2008 report by the GF&P addressed the question.

“Duck hunters have been in the foreground when it comes to raising money and lending support for conservation projects, defending hunting against its critics and influencing Congress on important conservation issues,” the report said. “In rural states such as South Dakota, hunting makes a significant contribution to bringing money into rural communities.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Ken Dulik, whose office is located near Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in northeast South Dakota, listed the Federal Duck Stamp program as a good example of waterfowl hunters’ dollars going toward outdoor conservation.

All waterfowl hunters nationwide are mandated to buy a $15 federal duck stamp annually, and some of that money goes toward purchasing land for conservation, including landowner easements that are put into a habitat protection program. Dulik said more than 1 million acres have been rolled into the program in the U.S., and the landowners agree not to plow the ground or hay the grass before July 15.

Simply put, if there are more duck hunters, there will be more federal duck stamps purchased and there will be more money going into habitat protection.

According to Ducks Unlimited, there have been about 4.7 million acres of land conserved in the United States due to habitat conservation programs as of Jan. 1, 2013.

Ducks Unlimited raises money for conservation through annual banquets, memberships and individual donors.

“We’ve been raising about a half-million dollars a year for the last couple of years in Ducks Unlimited in South Dakota, and Ducks Unlimited has spent more than twice that just in South Dakota,” Heidelbauer said. “Declining numbers like this are concerning because most of the conservation money and work is done because of sportsmen. They shoulder the load of paying their way with hunting licenses and through duck stamps. With sportsmen going away, that money goes down, and it’s hard to get put back.”

Back to hunting

To participate this weekend, youth must possess a valid youth small game license and the state migratory bird certification. Nontoxic shot is required and shooting hours are one-half hour before sunrise until sunset, and the daily limit regulations coincide with the regular waterfowl season. Six ducks can be taken, but no more than five mallards — two of which can be hens — three scaup, three wood ducks, two redheads, two pintails and two canvasbacks. The season is open statewide.

Next weekend is the state duck opener for the Low Plains North and Low Plains Middle zones, which cover nearly everything east of the Missouri River with the exception of the southern border. The entire state will be open Oct. 12 and season closing dates vary based on region.

Hunters can take 15 Canada geese daily until Oct. 1, when the daily limit drops to eight. This year, the state boosted the possession limit for both ducks and Canada geese to three times the daily limit. In recent years, the possession limit has been two times the daily limit.