U.S. Ground Crews Wrap Up 2016

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Written by Tony Roberts
Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Tony Roberts.I’m back in the office after a great season conducting the western Dakotas and eastern Montana ground surveys. Brad Rogers and I met up with Pam Garrettson and her crew in Minot, North Dakota after they finished the survey in the eastern Dakotas. We sent our crews towards their respective home bases and drove back to Laurel, Maryland over a couple days. Though it is nice to be with my family and sleep in my own bed, part of me misses the wide open vistas and abundant breeding waterfowl in the western United States.

As we drove the final couple hours to Maryland we experienced consistent rain, and heard from others that May has been one of the wettest on record including one stretch of 15 days in a row with rain. Back on the prairie we found average moisture conditions in the south, but it quickly got drier as we headed north and west. The last half of our transects (approximately 18 mile segments of longer, aerial lines) had as little as half the number of ponds and other wetlands observed in 2015, which was in itself an average to below average water year.

Ducks and other waterfowl are somewhat resilient to changes in water abundance on the landscape. They are highly mobile which allows them to seek out new breeding ponds on the landscape as precipitation patterns fluctuate. Many species also are able to breed in a variety of cover types from dense prairie grasses to backyards and agricultural fields, the latter being quite dangerous for most birds. This resiliency is continuously being tested by human changes to the landscape. Over time one can see the cyclical changes to habitat on the prairies, mostly as a result of changing land conservation policy and fluctuating grain prices. Current acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, a large Farm Bill program designed to increase grass cover on the landscape, are at their lowest since the inception of the program in the late 1980’s. There are numerous other programs designed to conserve habitat, and numerous partner organizations working to protect migratory birds and their habitats. What’s needed is continued support from people that care about abundant waterfowl populations for generations to come. We hope to be conducting the survey for generations to come as well, and I look forward to counting many more breeding ducks!

Wildflowers on the Montana prairie. Photo Credit: Tony Roberts, USFWS.

Wildflowers on the Montana prairie. Photo Credit: Tony Roberts, USFWS.