Federal Regulations Background

Duck hunters in boat picking up decoysThe purpose of hunting regulations is to keep harvests at levels compatible with a population's ability to maintain itself. In the US, the regulatory tools that waterfowl managers use to do this are framework regulations and special regulations.

Framework regulations consist of the outside dates for opening and closing hunting seasons, season length, daily bag and possession limits, and shooting hours. The Migratory Bird Treaty sets the earliest and latest dates within which states may hold hunting seasons, and stipulates that season lengths may not exceed 107 days. In practice, season lengths tend to fluctuate with bird abundance. They also vary by flyway -- usually longest in the Pacific Flyway and shortest in the Atlantic Flyway, reflecting differences in the abundance of birds, number of hunters, and other factors. States work within the framework regulations to set their individual seasons.

The number of birds of a species or group that can be harvested in a day is defined as the daily bag limit. Bag limits tend to be larger for birds that are highly productive, very abundant, short-lived, or lightly hunted. For ducks, daily bag limits are usually most liberal in the Pacific Flyway and most restrictive in the Atlantic Flyway, for the same reasons that the season lengths differ. Shooting hours limit the time of day when migratory birds may be harvested. Since 1918, shooting hours generally have been one-half hour before sunrise to sunset.

Special regulations consist of framework regulations that generally are applied on a smaller scale. Examples include split seasons, zones, and special seasons. States have been allowed to divide their hunting period for most species and groups of birds into 2 or sometimes 3 nonconsecutive segments in order to take advantage of peaks of abundance. Zoning is the establishment of independent seasons in 2 or more zones within a state to distribute harvest opportunity more evenly among hunters throughout the state. Generally, special seasons focus on those species considered to be more lightly utilized than others. Special seasons are usually, but not always, in addition to the regular season.

Other regulatory tools are available as well. Closed seasons occur when there are not enough birds of a particular species to withstand harvest. For example, canvasback seasons have been closed in the recent past.

Permits are effective regulatory mechanisms that allow hunters to take a limited number of birds of a certain species. Recent examples of the use of permits have been with some Canada goose populations and with tundra swans.

Quotas are defined as predetermined apportionments of a limited resource. Recent examples of quotas have been with some Canada goose and sandhill crane populations.

Harvest regulations are published annually in the Federal Register, and opportunity for public comment is part of the regulatory process. Each year, as the regulation-setting process unfolds, the most up-to-date information is listed in the Current Federal Regulations section of this website.

Brief History of Waterfowl Regulations in the US

1920s -- Waterfowl hunting regulations were liberal (for example, 107-day seasons, 75 ducks per day) and similar among states.

1930s -- After the drought years of the 1930s, more conservative regulations were adopted.

1940s -- The Flyways approach to regulation setting was developed.

1950s -- Fine tuning of regulations along Flyway lines. Differences recognized in waterfowl abundance, hunter demographics and climate. Regulations became more complex.

1960s -- Special seasons sprouted up throughout the continent.

1970s -- Population goals and harvest guidelines guided the regulation-setting process.

1980s -- Drought and decline in waterfowl populations; removal of special seasons.

1990s -- Development of Adaptive Harvest Management.