The wild duck populations that will fly south from the prairie pothole regions on the north central United States and central Canada early this fall are at higher levels than at any time since the early 1980s and similar to counts in the early 1970s, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
And when Maryland opens its duck hunting season in October, it is possible that hunters will have a 40-day season, with a bag limit of three ducks per day.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which originally planned to allow four ducks per day and a 30-day season, now has given Maryland the option of more ducks per day or more days to hunt.
A spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources said late last week that it is likely the state will go with the longer season, but will wait until public hearings on waterfowl regulations have been held to make its decision.
Joshua Sandt, director of DNR's Wildlife Division, said that some states had asked the USFWS for more hunting days, given the excellent shape of the duck population that will fly south this fall.
USFWS population estimates of seven of the nine principal species of ducks were higher this year than last. Numbers of gadwall, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal and shovelers were above their long-term averages. Mallards, wigeon, redheads and canvasbacks were similar to long-term averages.
The fall flight index for mallards, for example, is 12 million, 39 percent higher than last year.
"All four [continental] flyways came in requesting days, and early indications were that we were going to get a week to 10 days added to the season," said Sandt, who wanted a longer season and a larger bag limit for Maryland this season. "The concern of the Fish and Wildlife Service primarily was that one year doesn't make a trend."
So the federal frameworks, within which Maryland must set its seasons, again are conservative, as they probably should be after more than a decade of below-average fall flights.
"But unlike geese [which are long-lived], you can't stockpile ducks," Sandt said. "There is going to be a certain mortality in that population whether we hunt them or not, so we felt very justified in asking for [more] days and an increase in bag limits."
Sandt said that at USFWS meetings recently in Washington, several members of Congress asked that longer seasons and larger bag limits be considered.
"I can't remember the last time anyone from the Hill showed up at those meetings," Sandt said. "I think it got the attention of the service."
The breeding success of ducks this summer has been attributed to good water conditions in the prairie pothole region, especially on lands that are part of the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal plan that leases erodible tracts from farmers.
Estimates of the number of May ponds were up 47 percent over last year and higher than long-term averages. The breeding population of ducks was up 24 percent from last year.
"The way water conditions are now, there is no way [ponds] can dry up before next year," Sandt said. "So we are going to have good production again next year, and we can look forward, I feel every confident, next year to an increase in [hunting] days."
Maryland hunters will be able to take canvasbacks only in the third split, when the Chesapeake population is largely male birds.
The first split of the duck season is scheduled to coincide with the peak in wood duck migration, and to avoid an overlap with the experimental early muzzleloader season for deer, which will run Oct. 20-22 this year.
The second, two-day split begins as usual on Thanksgiving and precedes the opening of deer firearms season. The third split opens Dec. 13, after the close of the deer firearms season.
The Maryland proposals for snow geese include a daily bag limit of five and a possession limit of 10, up one bird per day over last year even though breeding success was poor this summer.
"Snow goose production is off quite a bit, but the population is still very high, and there isn't any reason to cut back on days or bag limits," Sandt said.
"If we get a lot of outcry at the public meetings this year, we will consider cutting it back to four and eight."
Brant are hunted mainly along the Atlantic coast and make up less than 3 percent of Maryland's goose kill, and even though Atlantic Flyway population last winter reached 157,200, an increase of 53 percent from the previous year, fewer than 1,800 have been counted in Maryland during the past three years.
"Atlantic brant have reached target level that was identified in the [flyway management] plan, so we can go to a 50-day season instead of a 30-day season," Sandt said, adding that the other states in the flyway opted to take two birds per day rather than the four that were available within the USFWS framework.