Atlantic Flyway waterfowlers in the United States will have reduced bag limits on geese and mallards during the 2019-2020 season. The mallard limit will drop to two daily, only one of which may be a hen, while Canada goose seasons in the Atlantic population zones will run just 30 days with a restrictive harvest. The Atlantic Flyway Council approved the regulations in September, and they were formalized by the USFWS Service Regulations Committee on October 16 and 17.
Canada goose hunters in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia face a limit of one bird daily, while the rest of the flyway’s Atlantic population zones will be permitted two daily. The move was largely spurred by poor Canada goose production in spring 2018, plus a 30 percent decline among Atlantic population Canadas in the most-recent breeding population survey.
“Atlantic Flyway biologists estimate it was the worst Atlantic population Canada goose production in 22 years,” said John Devney, Delta’s senior vice president, who attended the Atlantic Flyway Council meeting. “The collaborative Atlantic population banding effort accounted 30 juveniles for the 3,000 geese banded. That is abysmal.”
Atlantic population goose regulations are governed by a three-year average population estimate. The threshold for conservative regulations is 150,000 birds, and while this year’s estimate was 155,000, poor goose production compelled the Atlantic Flyway Council to act.
“Unlike most ducks, Canadas generally have lower reproduction potential and there is a relationship between hunter harvest and survival,” Devney said. “So, with an estimate that’s close to the edge with poor production on top of that, it’s appropriate for the Flyway Council to be cautious. Nobody wants to revisit the days when there was a moratorium on Canada goose hunting on the Delmarva Peninsula.”
The reduced mallard limit is in response to a longer-term issue. Population surveys indicate breeding mallards in the northeast United States have declined about 20 percent since 1998 (despite increasing 7 percent in this year’s survey to 482,100, they are 32 percent below the long-term average).
The original proposed action to reduce mallard harvest was a limit of two mallards, both of which could be hens. Delta did not dispute the need to take action, but advocated for consideration of a limit of three mallards and one hen — potentially providing more opportunities for hunters while reducing adult hen mortality. The effort did not succeed.
However, surveys by the USFWS found that Atlantic Flyway hunters favored further restricting the hen mallard limit to one daily. And in May, Delta Waterfowl delivered a survey to all Atlantic Flyway members, which found 17.9 percent supported a limit of two mallards with one hen, while only 6.6 percent preferred a limit of two mallards with two hens (63.9 percent favored a limit of 3 mallards, one hen). Ultimately, given the hunter-feedback, the Council settled on a daily bag of two mallards, only one of which can be a hen.
“I credit Atlantic Flyway duck hunters for being vocal and the Flyway Council for considering their wishes,” Devney said.
Notably, Atlantic Flyway duck hunters will retain a 60-day duck season for 2019-2020, as determined by a multi-stock harvest model employed by the Council for the first time. Previously, Atlantic Flyway duck season lengths and overall bag limits were set using a mallard-based model — as they continue to be in all other flyways. Now, the flyway’s frameworks will be established based on the aggregate population status of four key Atlantic species: green-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, wood ducks and goldeneyes. Mallard and black duck limits will be considered independently, just as scaup, canvasbacks and pintails are elsewhere.
Although eastern mallards are declining, mallards occupy a smaller percentage of the Atlantic Flyway harvest than elsewhere, and the breeding habitat of eastern mallards is distinct from other major species important in the Atlantic Flyway.
“If you looked at the estimate of breeding mallards and breeding mallard habitat in the Central Flyway in a given year, it’d be pretty descriptive for all prairie-nesting ducks,” Devney said. “But mallards are a less appropriate surrogate for the habitat and breeding biology of the important eastern ducks considered in the multi-stock harvest strategy.”
Delta Waterfowl believes the multi-stock harvest model will result in better long-term outcomes for hunters.
“The Atlantic Flyway Council, especially, and also the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, deserve a great deal of credit for getting out of a difficult situation, performing really strong technical work and delivering a solution that equally considers ducks and duck hunters,” Devney said. — Kyle Wintersteen