Two veteran duck hunters have come to the same conclusion about the 1985-86 season.
David Powell, a Virginia businessman, said he bagged birds each day during last week's four-day early season, but walked away from the experience wondering "if it isn't time to close the season for a year or two and give the ducks a rest."
Luther Carter, a science writer and longtime waterfowler, arrived at the identical idea. These fellows don't know each other and neither was asked for an opinion. They simply volunteered a willingness to give up the sport for the sake of the ducks, which are not faring well after five years of drought in the prairies, where they nest.
The stance was interesting in view of the recent battle between Ducks Unlimited, the waterfowl hunters' organization, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over federal duck-hunting restrictions implemented this year to ease pressure on troubled species, notably mallards and pintails.
With 600,000 members, DU has a voice in conservation matters that it has been using to challenge federal findings of a steep decline in ducks coming south this winter and to unsuccessfully fight federal regulations designed to reduce hunter kills by 25 percent.
When folks like Carter and Powell make unsolicited offers to give up hunting altogether, one wonders whether DU, which called the federal restrictions "unnecessary and potentially harmful to waterfowl conservation" in a news release cosigned by several other hunting-conservation outfits, actually represents the duck-hunting public.
"I don't find many hunters supporting DU's view," said Jim Phillips, editor of a hunting newsletter, Wildfowling. "In my opinion, DU is way off the mark."
And George Reiger, in Field and Stream magazine's October conservation column, took a broad swipe at DU, characterizing its position as "politics masquerading as science."
Fish and Wildlife's fall flight index indicates about 62 million ducks will head south this year, the lowest total, by about 15 million, since the agency began making predictions in 1969.
The agency and everyone else blame the decline on drought in the northern prairies, the most productive nesting area for major species, and on loss of marshy nesting habitat because of agricultural drainage.
But DU contends U.S. surveyors overestimated the decline. Mike Berger, assistant national and international operations director, said that although the federal survey is the only one that actually counts nesting ducks, DU does a "qualitative" study that indicated nesting success ought to be good.
In its news release, cosigned by the National Wildlife Federation, Izaak Walton League, National Rifle Association and Wildlife Legislative Fund, DU argued that restricting hunting would hurt conservation efforts by reducing the sale of hunting licenses and federal waterfowl stamps and by cutting private contributions to conservation organizations that finance habitat protection.
But opponents of DU's stance say the organization is protecting its members' self-interest -- hunting -- and at least one cosigner backed out. "It was a bad idea," said Izaak Walton League Executive Director Jack Lorenz.
And behind the political battle, which rages on even though the hunting restrictions are indelibly set for the season, lies the argument over whether killing ducks by hunting affects the following year's nesting population.
DU, relying on a Fish and Wildlife study of a decade ago, maintains ducks killed by hunters would be lost to disease, predation or starvation, anyway.
The study, called Anderson-Burnham after the scientists who conducted it, monitored wintering mallards to determine if hunting pressure affected numbers returning to nesting grounds. It concluded that about half the ducks leaving the north die before they can return to nest, regardless of whether they are hunted or not.
Berger said the study cited a "threshold" at which hunting pressure actually would cut into nesting stocks, but he said the threshold never has been reached.
USFWS officials wonder whether that threshold already isn't being exceeded.
Dr. Robert I. Smith, chief of the survey branch of the agency's migratory bird office, said that in the early 1960s, when duck populations were about as low as they are now after a similar drought, hunters were taking about 2.2 million mallards a year. Now, they take about 4.4 million, he said.
Total duck kill by hunters in the early 1960s averaged 6.8 million a year, he said, but by the early 1980s it had almost doubled to 12.4 million.
"It could be that we're still okay," Smith said, "but how much do you want to gamble? We're dealing with the North American waterfowl resource."
One thing that is not about to happen, agreed Smith and his boss, migratory bird chief Rollin Sparrowe, is the sort of duck-hunting closure Powell and Carter volunteered for.
"That subject comes up from time to time," said Smith, "but it's never been seriously considered. One reason is that a great deal of waterfowl habitat is wetlands leased for hunting, and the day it isn't hunted it'll be drained permanently and used for agriculture or development."