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Why Is There Such a Late Coastal Zone Framework for Ducks in 2004?

by Ted Nichols
Waterfowl Ecology and Management Program Biologist

When many hunters picked up the 2004-05 Migratory Bird Regulations (pdf, 115kb) and saw a Coastal Zone duck season of November 11-13 and November 25-January 29, many thought that they were looking at a misprint. "How could this season run so late into winter?" many thought.

Black duck - USFWS photoSetting waterfowl hunting seasons is a major challenge for waterfowl biologists. Several factors must be considered including biological, administrative, and social concerns. Biological factors include the status of duck populations, hunter selectivity for certain species, as well as harvest vulnerability for different species at key times during the hunting season. Administrative factors include abiding by established federal guidelines for duck seasons while social factors include accounting for the desires of waterfowl hunters.

The annual process of setting duck hunting regulations in the United States is based on a system of rigorous resource monitoring programs, data analysis, and rule-making. Annually, monitoring activities including aerial surveys and hunter questionnaires, provide information on habitat conditions, duck population size, and harvest levels. Following these monitoring programs and after consultation with the four Flyway Councils, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) annually promulgate hunting season frameworks during August. Inherent in the regulatory process are biological factors, such as the ability of duck populations to withstand a selected hunting season package of season length, bag limit, and framework dates. Biologists from the Division of Fish and Wildlife's Bureau of Wildlife Management develop and present recommended migratory bird hunting season dates for New Jersey to the Fish and Game Council at their August meeting each year.

The Fish and Game Council makes the final decision on New Jersey's waterfowl seasons while carefully considering the biologists' recommendations as well as input from their constituents. Hunters must keep in mind that when developing hunting seasons for migratory birds, season selections must stay within the frameworks of season length, opening and closing dates, and bag limits, as published in the annual Federal Register. State regulations can be more strict, but never more liberal than federal regulations.

Because the status of habitat conditions and duck populations were reasonably good this year, the four Flyway Councils and Service recommended a liberal duck season for 2004-05 in all Flyways. Under liberal season frameworks for ducks in the Atlantic Flyway, the season length can be up to 60 days.

Thanks to the efforts of former (retired) Director Bob McDowell, states with statutory Sunday hunting closures, like New Jersey, get compensatory days for the loss of hunting opportunity on Sundays. Additionally, duck seasons can open no earlier than the last Saturday in September and close no later than the last Sunday in January. An additional federal guideline limits the number of season segments or opening days that states can choose. Specifically, states with waterfowl zones, like New Jersey, can only split any given duck or goose season into 2 segments within each zone.

New Jersey Coastal Zone (CZ) hunters have generally expressed desires to hunt during three key periods. First, they wish to hunt as late as possible within the federal framework. Many wish to pursue diving ducks, which tend to arrive later, as well as mallards that are more likely to be frozen out of refuge areas, such as lagoons, during late winter. Second, CZ hunters want to hunt during the two key holiday periods when many are off from work: the Christmas to New Years Holiday and Thanksgiving. Most hunters have even expressed willingness to sacrifice traditional early November days as long as they can get their duck season set within these three preferred periods.

For the 2004-2005 season, the closing framework date of January 29 is very late due to the randomness of the calendar. Keeping in mind CZ hunters' preferences for later seasons, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, and the fact that a state's season can only be split into 2 segments, backing that late January 29 framework date up to Thanksgiving day (November 25) consumes 57 of New Jersey's allotted 60 duck season days! Although this framework gives most hunters what they say they prefer (Thanksgiving, Christmas and January), only 3 days remain for other CZ duck season options.

Since some of the best hunts often occur on the opening day of any given duck season, hunters have told us that they do not favor mid-week openings. Rather, Saturday or holiday openings seem to be preferred. As such, backing the additional 3 days up to November 22 (Monday) would probably not be popular with hunters. As such, we decided to put the additional 3 days in early November by opening on a holiday (Veterans Day, November 11) and closing on a Saturday (November 13).

In the CZ, waterfowl biologists have always been concerned about the potential vulnerability and subsequent over-harvest of black ducks when excessive snow and ice occur during extreme winters. Since 2000, we have allowed our CZ season to run later into the month of January. At the same time, we have carefully monitored the state's black duck harvest because we do not wish to see that harvest rise dramatically due to this season framework selection change.

In fact, New Jersey's annual black duck harvest has been fairly stable since 2000 at about 13 to 15 thousand birds when compared to previous years. Since the black duck harvest has not changed appreciably, we are inclined to give duck hunters what they say they want: the opportunity to hunt late. We will again carefully monitor this year's black duck harvest.

As you can see, many factors and constraints face waterfowl managers when setting duck seasons and considerable thought goes into actually choosing those days. Remember that hunters can make their opinions concerning waterfowl season selections known through their county representative of the New Jersey State Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs (via the Fish and Game Council) or by writing to the Director of the Division of Fish and Wildlife. Feedback, both negative as well as positive, can be useful when setting waterfowl seasons in subsequent years.

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Last Updated: October 29, 2004