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FORECAST CALLS FOR SLOW DUCK HUNT, BUT THERE’S HOPE LOCALLY

SHARE FORECAST CALLS FOR SLOW DUCK HUNT, BUT THERE’S HOPE LOCALLY

The facts and figures don't look all that good - again. And based on those reports the 1989 duck hunt, which opens Saturday at noon, shouldn't be any better than it was last year, or the year before that, or the year before that. And that's somewhere between difficult and darn difficult.

But then facts don't always paint the proper picture. So, based on that, this year's hunt may not be all that bad.Reports show that, once again, the duck population has dropped. Fewer ducks nested this past year than the year before, and the year before that. So, it's probably right to assume that there will be fewer ducks to hunt, and Utah hunters know that for the past several years there hasn't been that many to hunt anyway.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report showed that the number of breeding ducks in 1956 was around 50 million. This year it was below 30 million. The main reason for the decline in duck numbers is a continuing drought in northern breeding areas.

So this year's fall flight is expected to involve only around 60 million ducks. That may seem like a lot of ducks, but as early as the 1970s those numbers were up around 100 million.

There are, however, unseen facts that could brighten the picture.

One, reported Tom Aldrich, waterfowl program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, is the fact that Utah's marshes are in much better shape this year, which could lure more birds into the state and entice them to stay longer.

Another, said Aldrich, "Is that the birds nested in better areas. There are fewer birds, but those birds that did nest will likely have had better results. That's what we're hoping for. We're hoping to get more birds in this year."

So while the facts don't make it seem likely, no one will know for sure until the season is over and counts can be taken.

For now, though, predictions are that this year's opener will be similar to last year's, which was only slightly better than 1987's, which was certainly nothing too many duck hunters care to remember.

But, as Aldrich pointed out, indications of a "better" hunt are there.

The hunt for ducks, geese, swans, and less interesting Wilson's snipe and coot opens Saturday at noon. The duck, snipe and coot hunts will remain open until Nov. 26. It will then close for a month and reopen for one last week - Dec. 23-30. The idea behind the split season is to give hunters the opportunity to hunt during the Christmas holidays. The goose and swan season will run straight through until Jan. 2.

The limit on duck is four daily, but no more than three can be mallards, and only one of those a hen. Also, there can be no more than two redheads, one canvasback and one pintail, drake or hen. The limit on geese is the same as in past years - five daily, but no more than two can be dark or Canadian geese. The limit on coots is 25 daily and on snipe eight. A special swan permit, good for one swan, is required to hunt the big white bird. There were 2,500 permits available and all have been sold.

For those duck hunters going out Saturday without the advantage of private hunting lands, Aldrich said he expects some of the best hunting to be around the northern tip of the Great Salt Lake - Salt Creek, Ogden Bay, Public Shooting Grounds and Cutler Marsh. He also expects better hunting at some of the more out-of-the-way spots, such as Deseret Lake and Clear Lake, both near wildlife refuges.

Areas still under water are Farmington Bay, Harold Crane and Howard Slough management areas. Hunting at these areas is expected to be poor.

According to the latest counts, there are about 30,000 birds nesting on both Ogden Bay and Salt Creek, "Or about the same as last year," said Aldrich.

Birds are expected to stay in the area of Ogden Bay longer this year, however. Val Bachman, superintendent there, reported that restoration work is going better than expected. Several dikes, taken out by flooding of the lake, have been restored and many ponds there are now holding fresh water, which is more attractive to ducks.

Because of the drop in duck numbers, and the special limits being placed on hens, the suggestion is going out that hunters sight-in only on drakes.

"If you shoot only drakes," said Aldrich, "then you'll have an easier time staying within the limits. Trying to identify ducks can get complicated. The suggestion is, however, if you don't know, then don't shoot."

There are identification tips on the 1989 waterfowl proclamation. Also, there is additional information available at DWR offices.

There is a move under way to get hunters to use "voluntary restraint." The North American Wildlife Foundation is asking hunters to shoot only drakes, and to stop shooting short of a limit. They are also asking people - hunters and non-hunters - to buy their state, federal and provincial duck stamps to help fund habitat restoration efforts.

Aldrich said that hunters should not give up hunting. That won't help, he added. "The implied logic is that hunting is holding the population down. That's not right. When the habitat comes back, then the population will respond. If hunters stop hunting, then we won't be able to maintain the funding base.

"A more positive way is to set a personal limit, say for every five or 10 ducks, and then go out and buy an additional duck stamp. That's a much more positive program."

Among the different birds, pintail and mallard numbers are still down. The index on breeding pintails dropped four percent from last year - 2,577,000 to 2,471,000 - and 55 percent over the longterm average of 5,478,000. Mallard numbers dropped seven percent from last year - 6,550,000 to 6,119,000 - and 25 percent over the longterm average of 8,156,000.

The one bright spot in waterfowl hunting continues to be with the geese. The Rocky Mountain goose population is at a near-record high, this despite losses in Utah due to flooding problems. According to Aldrich, there was a bumper crop of young geese this past year.

The breeding population of swans took a 113 percent jump this past year. A large flight of migrating swans is expected to pass through Utah. The problem is that over the past few years the swans haven't stopped. The loss of habitat from flooding caused most of the swans to pass straight through the state. Improved conditions may cause more birds to stop this year.

Aldrich concluded by mentioning the three big changes in waterfowl hunting rules this year:

- Hunters, after opening day, can now hunt one-half hour before sunrise, and hunt until sunset. Last year it was from sunrise to sunset.

- The limit allows the shooting of one canvasback this year. Last year no canvasbacks were allowed.

- The duck hunt season will be split this year. It will close Nov. 26 and reopen Dec. 23 for one last week.