For many waterfowlers, particularly those plying the late season wetlands of northern Nevada, the bag limit for pintail seems to be out of context with the visible abundance of these graceful ducks. The apparent contradiction between what is observed in the skies and what is written within the regulations pamphlet has the potential to persuade people to act in ways that are not in the best interests of our sport. Some hunters may consider shooting pintails in excess of the limit – a clear violation of the law. Others may become frustrated with the restriction and decide to exit the marsh to pursue other interests – attrition that thins our ranks, ultimately diminishing support for waterfowl and wetland conservation.
These two concerns are not scientifically quantified (how much over limit is occurring, how many hunters are leaving because they can’t shoot pintails), but managers know the issues are real just the same. These same state and federal scientists have a better, though not complete, understanding of the status of the northern pintail. The breeding population (BPOP) of this species was considered to be far more abundant at one time than it is today (see graph) and at one time exceeded the ubiquitous mallard as the most abundant duck in North America.
However, it should be understood that early estimates could have been influenced by biases that have been addressed as survey and modeling protocols have evolved. The figure demonstrates that pintail numbers took a downward trend in the 1960s and recovered the following decade. Many readers may remember when they could take bonus pintails above the aggregate bag limit. But pintails and other ducks declined in the 1980s due to habitat changes across the continent and this stimulated managers to support the establishment of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP). This plan set goals for specific duck stocks and prompted governments to manage the birds and their habitat with the intent to restore waterfowl abundance.
There are two common approaches to managing duck numbers: improvement of key habitats to stimulate greater productivity, and limiting the duck harvest to reduce mortality. The latter approach is far easier for agencies to implement. Since 1984, pintail limits have been separately defined within waterfowl regulations and since 1988, with the exception of the 1995-1997 seasons, the pintail limit has been one daily. More drastic restrictions needed to be invoked when the BPOPs declined even more in this decade, prompting partial season formats in 2003 & 2004. These constraints were and continue to be instituted in an attempt to assure a 6% increase in returning breeding birds from the previous year. In other words, modelers predict the fall flight based upon the estimated adult population which is principally derived from the interpretation of the traditional breeding pair survey findings. The fall flight forecast is further influenced by predicted production driven by an analysis of habitat conditions and the average latitude selected by breeding pintails in a given year (this is heavily dependent upon the status of mid-continent potholes and surrounding upland nesting habitat). These two elements are totaled and some natural pre-hunt mortality is factored in. Then with the fall flight (really the pre-season) estimate, harvest objectives are calculated that, if fully met, would still result in a continental post-season pintail population that is 6% greater than the previous year’s estimate.
The Northern Pintail Harvest Strategy (www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/ reports) was created in 1997 to implement the harvest management approaches necessary to conserve sprig in North America. The Strategy’s intent is to sustain pintail hunting consistent with the status of the population by basing the decision process on distinct biological criteria. The Pacific Flyway Council created the impetus for this movement and the strategy has undergone a number of adaptations over the years as greater scientific understanding emerged. Yet there are a number of shortcomings in this process. Namely, we don’t have complete understanding of the biology of the species. We cannot be certain that some model permutations are realistic for a dynamic population. And we are fairly certain that just attempting to conserve pintails through harvest management is not going to be effective in bringing the species back to its former abundance. One of the simplest ways to look at this latter remark is to look at the graph and see that after 22 years of greatly restrained harvest, the population exceeded the three million mark only a handful of times. It averages 2.8 million – half the NAWMP goal.
Most managers agree that the population no longer has the same amount of habitat available for breeding as it did in the 1970s and earlier. The carrying capacity isn’t there. Given this, efforts are under way to improve our understanding of mortality, distribution and other biological and ecological factors affecting pintails. The California Waterfowl Association is funding a long-term banding initiative in the Golden State to capture, mark and release pintails before and after the hunting season in an attempt to measure differences in natural versus man-caused (hunting) mortality rates. This should help managers better understand the compensatory model within the analytical framework.
Nevada intends to begin post-season pintail banding in 2009 to add to this effort. As the USFWS undergoes a comprehensive, continental banding needs assessment, the Pacific Flyway Council will be actively lobbying that pintail banding is a high priority. These combined efforts may also yield better understanding of what scientists call derivation of harvest. If such an analysis proves that pintails shot in the Pacific Flyway are derived principally from breeding grounds in this flyway, rather than from the mid-continent where habitat is diminishing and more susceptible to climatic extremes, then it might be possible to see more relaxed harvest regulations. This approach was used to develop a Western Mallard Model to influence more consistent regulatory packages for the flyway.
Also, if band recoveries coupled with an experimental directed harvest of bull-sprig can prove that this regulatory approach can lessen or even promote hen survival, then this protocol could see full implementation in the future. Gender-specific bag limits have been established for mallards since 1985. Finally, there has been some recent discussion about the possibility of amending the NAWMP goals in order to relax the constraint that presently guides pintail harvest management.
So there is some hope for duck hunters in the future and NDOW and NWA will be right there as active, involved partners.
PINTAILS IN NEVADA
During the past two years, California Waterfowl Association and California Department of Fish and Game have been banding pintails both immediately following and before hunting season. The subsequent analyses from their efforts will be able to tease apart when mortality is most important.
These results may provide key information about what effects harvest has on the Pacific Flyway segment of the pintail population. Nevada Waterfowl Association and Nevada Department of Wildlife will begin a banding project in Lahontan Valley in late January 2009 in an effort to capture and band more pintails to assist in the effort with our California counterparts. This project will be a volunteer effort lead by Chris Nicolai. Please contact him if interested in assisting with the project
By Craig Mortimore, NDOW