The Interior Department is preparing to issue duck-hunting regulations for the 1987 season, and once again it looks like gloomy news for hunters.
Populations of migratory waterfowl are at near-record lows for the third straight year, according to an annual survey conducted by U.S. and Canadian wildlife officials. The figures mean that hunting seasons will be abbreviated this autumn, and hunters will be allowed to shoot fewer ducks than normal.
In 1985, faced with the lowest number of breeding ducks recorded in 31 years of surveys, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued hunting regulations aimed at reducing the duck "harvest" by 27 percent.
Biologists say drought and habitat disruptions, rather than hunting, have caused the decline in duck populations, but federal officials had hoped reduced hunting pressure would help the flocks recover.
The latest survey, however, shows that some species, such as the blue-winged teal and northern pintail, are continuing to decline. The pintail, much prized by hunters, is down to 3.1 million birds, 44 percent below its long-term average and less than half of the 6.3 million biologists consider a healthy population level.
Other species, including mallards, green-winged teal and American widgeon, increased in number, but still are well below their average populations for the 32 years records have been kept.
"The results of this year's surveys generally indicate that duck numbers have not rebounded as quickly as everyone had hoped they would," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Frank Dunkle. "We suspect that duck populations just are not as resilient as they used to be because of the continued loss of the wetlands."
The problem, according to agency officials, is a prolonged drought that has dried out many of the ducks' favored breeding areas in Canada and the northern prairie states. The former wetlands often are then plowed up by farmers, destroying the vegetation ducks would feed on.
Douglas Inkley of the National Wildlife Federation agreed that habitat loss is a key factor in duck decline, but said that part of the problem may be the use of lead shotgun pellets. The Interior Department has launched a five-year program to phase out the use of lead shot, which Inkley said may kill as many as 2 million ducks a year. The birds eat the pellets and die of lead poisoning.
Sportsmen's organizations have been skeptical of the hunting restrictions, contending there is no evidence that the new curbs are having any impact. "Waterfowl are not responding to reduced hunting pressure," said Michael E. Berger of Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit organization that promotes waterfowl management. "To my mind, that says that was not the limiting factor in the first place."
Nonetheless, Inkley said the wildlife federation supported hunting restrictions as a "precautionary measure."
Hunters took about 9 million ducks last year under tighter rules. Under previous regulations, the take had been more than 11 million ducks.