BISMARCK -- Duck hunters in North Dakota should brace themselves for a challenging hunting season this fall because of widespread drought conditions, the Game and Fish Department said Monday, Aug. 2, in reporting results from its annual mid-July duck production survey.

The fall flight will be unfamiliar to many hunters, the department predicts.

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According to Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck, observations from the annual summer survey suggest the 2021 fall flight will be down 36% from last year and similar to the 1970, 1979 and 1994 fall flights.

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Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

“Hunters should expect waterfowl hunting to be difficult in North Dakota this year, with the lone bright spot being Canada goose hunting,” Szymanski said in a news release. “Nonetheless, localized concentrations of ducks, geese and swans will materialize throughout the hunting season as birds migrate through the state.

“Hunters should take advantage of early migrants like blue-winged teal during the first two weeks of the season. We won’t be able to depend on local duck production to the extent that we have in the past.”

Drought has severely impacted breeding duck habitats across North Dakota. Breeding conditions varied from very poor to fair, and the wetland index declined by 80%.

While 2.9 million ducks were estimated during the department’s 74th annual breeding duck survey in May, Szymanski said then that behavioral cues suggested breeding efforts by those ducks would be low.

He was correct.

“Conditions are not good statewide and, after a high count in 2020, the decline in wetlands counted represented the largest one-year percentage-based decline in the 74-year history of the survey,” he said. “Overall, this year’s breeding duck index was the 48th highest on record, down 27% from last year, but still 19% above the long-term average.”

The number of broods observed during the department’s July brood survey dropped 49% from last year’s count and 23% below the 1965-2020 average. While the number of broods observed is the lowest since 1994, the count this year was still 62% above the 1965-1993 average. The average brood size was 6.46 ducklings, down 4% from last year’s estimate.

The summer duck brood survey involves 18 routes that cover all sectors of the state, except west and south of the Missouri River. Biologists count and classify duck broods and water areas within 220 yards on each side of the road. The survey started in the mid-1950s, and all routes used today have been in place since 1965.

Game and Fish biologists will conduct a separate survey in mid-September to assess wetland conditions heading into the waterfowl hunting season.

“At this point, we are not overly concerned about undue negative impacts of the harvest on ducks during this season, but we’ll re-evaluate the situation during the federal regulations process,” Szymanski said. “One year of drought won’t be a disaster for ducks, but we could have issues if these conditions continue into next year.”

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North Dakota's regular waterfowl season opens Saturday, Sept. 25, for residents and Saturday, Oct. 2, for nonresidents.