DULUTH—The number of ducks across North America dropped 13 percent this year from last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported this week, but waterfowl numbers are still higher than long-term averages.
The estimated number of waterfowl sunk to 41.2 million ducks this summer, down from 47.3 million last year.
The number of mallards dropped to 11.4 million from 12.9 million in 2017.
Aerial and ground surveys were conducted in May and June across the most productive breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada with estimates based on those counts. The survey has been conducted every year since 1955.
"The dip in the population for prairie-breeding puddle ducks is not unexpected and by no means unprecedented given that conditions on the prairies this spring were drier than last year," said Tom Moorman, a waterfowl expert for the Ducks Unlimited conservation group. "As a result, 2018 populations dropped accordingly."
Moorman said that waterfowl numbers will rebound quickly if conditions are wetter next year, with more small ponds. But he warned that the duck-producing regions continue to lose key habitat — namely grasslands that are not plowed, planted or developed.
Wigeon were the only species to show an increase this year over last, 2 percent, and remain 8 percent above the long-term average.
Other species trends include:
• Pintails: down 18 percent from last year and 40 percent from the long-term average.
• Scaup (bluebills): down 9 percent from last year and 20 percent from the long-term average.
• Blue-winged teal: down 18 percent from last year but 27 percent above the long-term average.
• Gadwalls: down 31 percent from last year but 43 percent above the long-term average.
• Green-winged teal: down 16 percent from last year but 42 percent above the long-term average.
• Shovelers: down 3 percent from last year but 62 percent above the long-term average.
• Redheads: down 10 percent from last year but 38 percent above the long-term average.
• Canvasbacks: down 6 percent from last year but 16 percent above the long-term average.
The survey doesn't include ring-necked ducks, or ringbills, which are among the most common ducks in northeastern Minnesota during the hunting season, because the birds nest in large part in forested areas where counting them is difficult.
Pond counts in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba decreased 15 percent, too, but were still 4 percent above the long-term average. The news in the U.S prairies is even bleaker where prairie grasslands continue to be lost to cropland and development. Pond counts in the north-central United States, which covers Montana and the Dakotas, declined 11 percent, 8 percent below the long-term average.
The continental decline in ducks may mean some hunters will see fewer ducks this season, but local conditions are better in some areas and autumn weather will play a large role in hunter success.
As reported in June, Minnesota showed an increase in duck numbers this year, up 9 percent over 2017 and 12 percent above the long-term average. This year's mallard-breeding population was estimated at 38 percent above last year's estimate of 30 percent above the long-term average measured each year since 1968.
The Wisconsin breeding-duck population estimate of 439,397 is down 8 percent compared to 2017.
Duck production in North Dakota is up from last year, with an index 37 percent higher than 2017, based on results from the state's annual mid-July waterfowl production survey.