In historic first, blue-winged teal pass mallards as most abundant bird in Minnesota waterfowlers’ bags

The inclination today is to dress up this column in reader-friendly terms and headline it, “Five takeaways from this weekend’s continuing teal hunt ‘experiment.’ “

But that would trivialize the historic nature of what’s happening — what’s happened — to Minnesota duck hunting.

So I’ll leave it to readers to decide how many takeaways, if any, there are from a significantly altered Minnesota waterfowling tradition that at one time was uniquely rich and rewarding, but that has been turned on its head.

Start here:

For the first time in Minnesota history, mallards were not the most abundant duck in hunters’ bags last season. The mallard harvest fell from 84,000 in 2021 to 63,000 in 2022 — barely beating the 2022 Minnesota wood duck kill, which was 62,000.

The mallard harvest drop-off between 2021 and 2022 occurred even though Minnesota duck-hunter numbers stayed the same, at about 54,000.

“I suspect 2022 was the lowest mallard harvest ever in Minnesota,” said Department of Natural Resources waterfowl specialist Steve Cordts, who is stationed in Bemidji.

No kidding.

In 1967, 435,000 mallards were killed by Minnesota waterfowlers.

Meanwhile, the duck most often found in hunters’ bags last year was the … wait for it … blue-winged teal, whose 2022 state kill rose to 126,000 from 81,000 in 2021.

The higher bluewing harvest can be attributed almost entirely to Minnesota’s five-day early teal season experiment that began in September 2021. This is the same season that will begin for the third year at sunrise Saturday, and likely will be continued indefinitely by DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen before the 2024 season.

Fully 48,000 bluewings last year out of the seasonal kill of 126,000 were felled during the five-day early season.

The legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) noted decades ago that the management of migratory species such as ducks is far more complex, and controversial, than management of resident species such as deer and pheasants.

How true.

Consider: In 2011, when then DNR Commissioner Tom Landwehr spearheaded key changes in Minnesota duck hunting regulations intended to give hunters more chances to kill more ducks — including by increasing the daily hen mallard limit from one to two — critics argued these birds would suffer.

Landwehr also opened the duck season a week earlier and allowed shooting to begin one-half hour before sunrise, rather than at 9 a.m. (and noon before that.)

To his credit, Landwehr wanted to stem the loss of state duck hunters, whose numbers in the 1970s topped 120,000 but who dropped out of the pastime because for too long they had watched Minnesota wetlands be destroyed and ducks go missing.

Old-time Minnesota waterfowl managers considered Landwehr’s regulatory changes to be ill-advised.

As long ago as 1970, when Minnesota was still a relative habitat haven, Bob Jessen, then the DNR’s duck guru, argued for more mallard protection, not less.

“There is a conflict between maximum sport-hunting use of wetlands and maximum production of mallards,” Jessen wrote in a professional journal. “It is suggested this conflict can be resolved in part by setting aside a portion of (Minnesota) wetlands in a pattern of small refuges. Additional protection thus gained locally, together with judicious hunting regulations throughout the flyway, can increase the breeding population and harvestable surplus of mallards.”

Translated: Minnesota can’t shoot its way to more ducks.

Yet we’re trying — not only with mallards but with wood ducks, whose limit in 2011 was increased from two to three.

Now come blue-winged teal, whose higher harvests also are likely to continue, thanks to the three-year early season offered to Minnesota in 2021 as an experiment by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

For decades, Minnesota declined this opportunity over concerns that non-target species might be killed. Waterfowl managers also worried early teal hunting would further erode Minnesota’s traditional duck opener, which until Landwehr changed it began on the Saturday nearest Oct. 1.

In 2021, DNR waterfowl managers again declined the early teal season option. But Strommen and Gov. Tim Walz overrode the professionals’ recommendation, yielding to pressure from southern Minnesota waterfowlers who wanted a crack at more bluewings before they migrated south.

While conceding the state’s bluewing breeding population is down some 40% this year from its long-term average, Cordts argues teal are underharvested. He also notes breeding mallards have remained fairly constant in Minnesota, regardless of hunter harvests. And wood ducks, he says, are OK, too.

He notes as well that because Minnesota has lost more duck hunters in recent decades than most states ever had, duck harvests here aren’t excessive by historical comparison.

And yet … and yet … Minnesota’s early teal season this fall will be followed Sept. 9-10 by a youth waterfowl opener before being followed Sept. 23 by the early regular-season opener, assuming any ducks are still here.

All of this is light years different than Minnesota duck hunting once was, but none of it is a problem, say state duck managers.

Perhaps that’s the key takeaway from this column.

But this fall, when you’re in a western Minnesota marsh with your dog, or walking in a Twin Cities park, and you’re greeted again at sunrise by skies devoid of ducks, recall what the great Chico Marx would say, amending for present purposes his noteworthy line in “Duck Soup.”

“Who ya gonna believe? The DNR — or your own eyes?”

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