Here's a question for anyone who has hunted ducks.
• If, as will be the case this fall in Minnesota, a 16-day early goose season opens Sept. 4, during which over-water shooting will be allowed statewide from a half-hour before sunrise to sunset, and,
• If, on that same day a five-day special teal-hunting season begins, with shooting allowed between sunrise and sunset daily, and,
• If, on the weekend following the teal season, a two-day Youth Waterfowl Hunt is held with shooting hours beginning a half-hour before sunrise to sunset ...
Then (here's the question) would you, as a duck hunter, believe that on the regular waterfowl opener slated for Sept. 25, the same number of non-teal ducks will be in the state as there would be if the early teal, early goose and youth hunts weren't allowed?
No is the obvious answer — fundamentally because no living thing likes to get shot, shot at, or, specific to non-target ducks during the coming teal and early goose seasons, disturbed by shooting.
Ducks that are disturbed in this way tend to move, in some cases to nearby ponds, in others to other states.
Experience and research have shown the best way to limit such movements by ducks is to restrict shooting hours and, in some cases, the number of hunters doing the shooting.
Imagine, for example, that you, a duck hunter, owned, say, 200 acres that featured multiple duck-attracting wetlands. Would you hunt it every day, all day and allow other people to hunt it also?
Of course not.
Instead, you'd restrict the number of hunters while also restricting shooting hours, thereby providing ducks a place and time to rest, thus ensuring to the greatest degree possible that your 200 acres would hold an optimum number of ducks for the longest period of time — and provide you the best possible hunting.
The point here is not to suggest the Department of Natural Resources limit waterfowl hunting statewide in this way, though similar restrictions implemented in key regions would help hold migratory waterfowl here longer in the fall.
The point instead is to illustrate just how far apart from the thinking and experiences of many Minnesota waterfowlers the DNR has been in its management of ducks, especially given the agency's recent announcement that it will hold the aforementioned five-day teal season in early September, when some ducks won't be, or will barely be, fledged.
The DNR has tried to gin up interest in waterfowling in recent years among new hunters and among those who have dropped out of the sport, and the new teal season is considered by many observers a furtherance of that effort.
Minnesota averaged about 140,000 duck hunters in the 1970s, and now claims about 80,000. Some baby boomers have grayed out of the pastime. But many Minnesota duck hunters say the state has too little habitat and too few ducks — despite the fact that state waterfowlers individually today kill about the same number of ducks per season as they did 50 years ago, about nine.
The agency didn't announce it, and understandably so, but the DNR Waterfowl Committee, whose proposals are almost always codified as rule, recommended against a special teal season, preferring instead to offer hunters two bonus blue-winged teal to go along with their six-duck bags during the first 16 days of the season.
The decision to override the committee's recommendation and initiate the five-day teal season was made by DNR Fish and Wildlife Division director Dave Olfelt, in conjunction with the commissioner's office.
"We felt giving hunters this additional opportunity was worth a try," Olfelt said Friday. "It's an experimental season, and if we find it doesn't work, we won't continue it."
The Waterfowl Committee opted against a teal season because its members believed it might degrade the regular duck opener and because hunters might have difficulty distinguishing teal from non-target ducks, making the season, ultimately, unworkable.
The DNR is required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to conduct spy-blind observations of hunters during the five-day season to ensure non-target ducks aren't being killed.
"We have to report to the Service noncompliance with regulations and incidental take" on non-teal ducks, said DNR waterfowl specialist Steve Cordts.
Payment for the spy-blind work by perhaps 25 DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees will come from the Fish and Game Fund, supported by license fees.
A minimum of 20 hunts must be observed, but Cordts said he hopes for more. The spies in some cases will watch hunters from a distance. At other times the observers will pose as hunters.
"We'll be recording shots fired at non-target ducks," Cordts said.
Meanwhile, for the second straight spring, the Fish and Wildlife Service didn't conduct aerial pond and breeding-duck counts, and Minnesota also canceled its survey, both due to the pandemic.
It's known, however, that extremely dry conditions prevail throughout the duck breeding range (North Dakota May ponds were off 80% from last year), and that duck production is likely to be significantly affected (North Dakota mallards are down 49%).
Yet even if managers had current duck and pond data, and even if the data were dire, say, for teal, the fall seasons wouldn't be affected, Cordts said, because they were set more than a year ago — and again with the most liberal limits possible: six ducks per day in 60-day seasons.
The same regulatory framework in fact has already been established by state and federal waterfowl managers for the 2022-2023 season, again without benefit of duck population or breeding-conditions data.
"It would be nice to have the data," Cordts said, "but we're not setting duck seasons anymore based on annual data, anyway."