Just when it appeared Utah duck hunters were about to get a break with the lowering of the Great Salt Lake, another setback hits, this time from outside the state.
This one, however, could hurt sportsmen the most. It will, most certainly, shorten the season, reduce limits and place tighter restrictions on ducks that can be harvested.For the eighth straight year, northern provinces of Canada are being hit by a drought. Reports indicate this year's water shortage in southern Alberta, where most of the ducks that will eventually pass through Utah nest in the summer, is the worst.
This month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will undertake population counts to see just how bad it is. Early estimates are that duck numbers will be down 30 percent over last year. And, while last year was not the worst in terms of the number of ducks flying, it came close.
In the Pacific Flyway, in the best waterfowl years, the population index of pintail ducks was 10,124,000 in 1956, and 12,904,000 for mallards in 1958.
Both species hit an all-time low in 1985. Counts that year showed populations of 2,935,000 pintails and 5,475,000 mallards. Last year there were slight gains in both populations. Mallards counts, for example, were up to 6,691,000.
Predictions are the mallard population will drop by at least five percent and the pintail counts will be close to 1985 figures. Alberta is a favorite nesting area for pintail.
Another indicator of poor nesting conditions is the large number of birds nesting in Alaska this year. Ducks displaced from the Alberta marshes have flown a considerable distance in an attempt to find suitable nesting.
Studies have shown, reported Tom Aldrich, supervisor of waterfowl programs for the Utah Division of Wildlife Recourses, that displaced birds do not breed as successfully as birds nesting in more familiar habitat.
"It's another good indication that this will not be a very cheerful season," he said.
What this all means, of course, is there will be more controls on hunting and hunters this season.
Rumors about impending federal restrictions have flown around like disturbed bees. The most repeated is that the Utah season will be cut from 76 to 25 days, that limits will be cut from five to two birds, and that while last year's regulations allowed for one hen pintail in a limit, this year's will allow for no pintails - drake or hen.
Aldrich, however, believes that it is more likely the season will be cut to 65 days, with a one to two week delay in opening day to allow more ducks to move out of the state. He also believes the limit will be cut to four birds, but with no more than one pintail - drake or hen - in a limit.
Because of the drought it is also expected that canvas back ducks will be fully protected. Last year hunter were allowed two canvas back or two redhead or one of each in a limit. This year no canvas back ducks will be allowed, but the two-bird limit on redhead ducks is expected to remain.
After the July counts, the USFWS will meet to set guidelines for state agencies. The Utah Wildlife Board will then meet and, using federal guideline, set down 1988 regulations.
After several years of steady decline in Utah duck hunting, it appeared chances for an upturn were good this year with a drop of over three feet in the lake's level. Several of the popular mud flats are now exposed, along with some of the crucial dikes.
"Unfortunately," added Aldrich, "vegetation doesn't come back with the exposed land."
Because of the saline content of the marches after flooding of the salty water, it will take years to restore the marshes to their pre-flood condition.
Rising waters from the Great Salt Lake began spilling over into important duck habitat along the eastern shore four years ago. The salty water destroyed important nesting and feeding areas for both ducks and geese. It also made Utah's marshes far less appealing to passing ducks and greatly limited hunting areas for duck hunters. Many of the private duck clubs, in fact, were covered by four feet of water.
Once again, the one bright spot in waterfowl hunting falls on the geese. Goose numbers, Aldrich reported, are about what they were last year, "which means geese are in pretty good shape. We should have another good goose hunt."