“Water” is the Important Word in Missouri Waterfowl Forecast

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"Water" is the Important Word in Missouri Waterfowl ForecastJEFFERSON CITY—Waterfowl hunters’ wishes came true this year when Missouri got more rain, but they backfired, damaging wetlands and reducing the availability of food that might induce ducks and geese to linger in the Show-Me State.

Drought has plagued Missouri in recent years, hampering efforts to keep wetlands wet. This year, however, those who manage wetland areas for the Missouri Department of Conservation tore their hair as floods destroyed levees, drowned out native, seed-producing plants, killed crops planted for ducks and geese and made any kind of active management impossible on many areas.

“You need water for good duck habitat,” said Resource Scientist Andy Raedeke, “but this year much of this rain has come at the wrong time. Many wetland-dependent species depend on spring floods to recharge basins and provide habitat. However, late summer and early fall floods are unusual in Missouri and can destroy much-needed food resources and habitat for migrating waterfowl. One bright spot is that floods at this time of year do provide more habitat for wading birds and migrating shorebirds.”

Data from the weather station at Sanborn Field in Boone County give some idea how much of a “good thing” Missouri has gotten this year. From January through September, the gauge there collected 51.74 inches of rain. During the same period in 2007, the same gauge showed only 24 inches, and in 2006 it gathered a mere 21.92 inches. The area’s average rainfall is approximately 40 inches.

Wave after wave of torrential rain affected the Conservation Department’s managed wetland areas dramatically for the worse. Rivers smashed through some levees. Others were simply drowned by rising streams. Raging waters destroyed pumps, drains, gates and other wetland infrastructure. Without those tools, managers were unable to manipulate water levels, grow food crops and flood pools according to seasonal schedules after the floods receded.

“Hunters are going to find conditions that are very different than normal on many areas as a result of flooding,” said Raedeke. “Besides structural damage, rain and floods destroyed crops intended to provide food for ducks.”

That is bad news for ducks and geese, which will not find much to replenish their energy in Missouri. It is bad news for hunters, because hungry waterfowl are not likely to linger in Missouri if food supplies are sparse.

The deluge killed more than crops. In many areas, water covered wetland areas for weeks, killing even moisture-tolerant native plants, such as millet, that produce vast amounts of waterfowl food in normal years. The same plants usually grow tall enough to hide hunters, but large expanses of wetland will have short vegetation this year, making duck hunting extra challenging.

Raedeke said native moist-soil plants could make up for some of the lost time if warm weather lingers well into October, but some areas simply have sparse food and cover.

Nor are hunters getting particularly good news about waterfowl numbers. Raedeke notes that while this year’s fall flight forecast remains above the long-term average for many ducks and geese, many are down from last year.

The 2008 fall flight estimate of 37.3 million ducks is down 9 percent from last year and 11 percent above the long-term (1959-2007) average. Estimated numbers of mallards, scaup, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and redheads were similar to last year’s. However, wigeon numbers declined by 11 percent, gadwalls declined by 19 percent, pintails by 22 percent, shovelers by 23 percent and canvasbacks were down 44 percent compared to 2007.

Raedeke said hunters should not be too discouraged, however.

“Last year we had fairly tough conditions, and the season turned out way better than expected,” he said. “Floods early in the year hurt our wetland areas, and a late-summer drought cut into food production in southern Missouri. But we got good weather during the hunting season, and that kept a lot of ducks around. We ended up with a record harvest, and we could still have a very good season this year, too, if the weather cooperates.”

If there is good news in all the flooding news it is that aquatic insects, snails and other invertebrate foods will be abundant this year. Raedeke noted that floods are an indispensable part of wetland ecosystems. While they cause trouble for managers and hunters, they also have positive effects.

For more information about the waterfowl season outlook, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/765 or www.mdc.mo.gov/770.

Missouri’s duck season runs from Oct. 25 through Dec. 23 in the North Zone, from Nov. 1 through Dec. 30 in the Middle Zone and from Nov. 27 through Jan. 25 in the South Zone. Youth-only hunting seasons take place the weekend before the opening day in each zone.

The daily limit on ducks is six, including no more than four mallards (no more than 2 females); one black duck; three mottled ducks (new this year); one pintail; one scaup (down from two last year); three wood ducks (up from two last year); two redheads; and two hooded mergansers. The season for canvasbacks is closed.

Other species may be taken in any number up to the daily bag limit of six ducks total. Possession limits are twice the daily bag limits.

For zone boundaries, goose seasons and other waterfowl hunting information, visit www.mdc.mo.gov/7559, or pick up a copy of the 2008-2009 Waterfowl Hunting Digest, available wherever hunting permits are sold.

Following are summaries of conditions at Conservation Department wetland areas.

NODAWAY VALLEY CONSERVATION AREA (CA) was covered with water June 7 and 8 due to levee failures. Area managers had barely gotten crops replanted when the area’s west side flooded again in late July. As a result, hunting on the west side of the area will be poor this year. Hunters will find fair to good moist-soil vegetation on the area’s east side. Pumping enough water to flood this area could be difficult if the Nodaway River is low this fall.

BOB BROWN CA got off lucky, with no flood damage to area infrastructure or crops. Crops and moist-soil vegetation are in good shape, and good hunting conditions are expected. The only possible limiting factor at this area is water availability.

Two pumps draw water from the Missouri River to flood Bob Brown’s wetland pools, but they can only operate when the river is high enough. Both pumps were in operation early this month, but that could change when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reduces water flow at the end of the commercial navigation season. As of Oct. 6 the refuge and a few other pools were well-flooded, and water was being channeled into pools with crops.

GRAND PASS CA avoided over-levee flooding but got a fair amount of rainwater and seepage in June and July. Hunters may notice patchy corn crops in northern parts of Pools 5 and 5 West, where seep water hampered crop production. The rest of the area is in good shape, and hunting should be as good as it has been in recent years. Like Bob Brown CA, Grand Pass relies on the Missouri River for water to flood wetland pools. One of the area’s water pumps already is out of commission, so a low Missouri River could make water management a challenge.

Twelve flood events from February to mid-September not only held up renovation work at FOUNTAIN GROVE CA, they caused levee damage that had to be fixed before work could resume. No crops grew in pools 1, 2, 3, H or J, which were flooded for most of the spring and summer. Portions of these pools will be closed to hunting this fall, since renovation work continues there. Food production on the area’s east side is fair to good. The Mac 1 and 2 pools have fair crop production, whereas the Mac 3, 4 and 5 pools will have poor crop but fair to good moist soil plant production. Stinson has no crop but fair moist soil plant growth.

Continuing work on water control structures in Pools 2 and 3 will keep that area dry this fall, so hunting on the area’s west side will be greatly reduced. Hunting will be somewhat better on the east side of Fountain Grove CA, but late planting likely will delay hunting opportunity in some areas.

All waterfowl hunting at Fountain Grove will be walk-in type this year that closes at 1 pm. They expect to start the season with four to eight shooting positions and close with as many as 12 with ideal water conditions. Additional positions may be available if wet conditions prevent continued progress of the renovation project.

EAGLE BLUFFS CA experienced some heavy rainfall and seepage through saturated levees but avoided overtopped or breached levees. Higher than normal water levels prevented crops from producing seed in five pools, but native vegetation responded well and replaced this loss somewhat. Hunters will find little corn but fair moist-soil vegetation. High water prevented production of food around either of the wheelchair-accessible blinds.

TED SHANKS CA was harder hit by this year’s floods than most areas. Levees breached in the north and south ends of the area, putting it under water from the middle of June until August. Cover is limited as a result, and food is very scarce. Area staff expects to cut the number of hunting spots by as much as half this year, and no blinds will be available.

Many of the approximately 90 blind sites at UPPER MISSISSIPPI CA were damaged by late-summer flooding. Area managers are working with blind registrants to get these blinds repaired, but some may be in poor condition for the upcoming season.

B.K. LEACH CA disappeared under as much as 11 feet of water last summer. Levee damage was minimal, but planting was delayed. Millet planted in mid-August suffered from heavy rainfall that marked the passage of Hurricane Ike. Millet and smartweed survived in some areas, but cover and food are likely to be sparse. Hunting conditions could change, depending on weather, but right now the area looks poor to fair at best.

MARAIS TEMPS CLAIR CA avoided major flooding, but heavy rains prevented normal crop planting, so there are no floodable crops. Moist-soil vegetation did well in more elevated parts of the area. Overall, however, hunters will find fair hunting with less food for ducks than normal.

This is the first year of hunting in a new wetland area – Pool 6A – at Marais Temps Clair. This pool will provide hunting for one or two additional parties, bringing the maximum number of parties the area can handle under ideal conditions to 10.

COLUMBIA BOTTOM CA experienced extensive flooding from April through July, limiting growth of native vegetation and planted millet. Some of the upper pools will have fair to poor moist-soil vegetation for cover and food, but the lower pools, including the refuge, will have little or no food to hold waterfowl. There is no corn or other grain. Hunting opportunity will be very limited early in the season, and late-season hunting will depend on progress repairing a pump station. The area was left out of the waterfowl hunting reservation system this year in recognition of the limited hunting potential there.

The Little Osage River got out of its banks seven times between April and June, inundating the AUGUST A. BUSCH JR. MEMORIAL WETLANDS AT FOUR RIVER CA. Late plantings of millet and sorghum were doing well when Hurricane Ike blew in. The area got more than 12 inches of rain between Sept. 3 and Sept. 13, flooding the area again. The flooding damaged the moist-soil vegetation and crops, leaving the area short on both food and cover.

The main water-control structure in Unit 3 failed during early flooding, leaving that area at the mercy of the river. There will be plenty of huntable water in the draw units and the open hunting units, but food and cover will be limited

SCHELL-OSAGE CA suffered eight floods this year, sustaining damage to levees, roads, blinds and water-control structures. Planting of millet did not start until late July, and later floods largely drowned out those plantings, along with moist-soil vegetation. Montrose’s wetland pools are full, but availability of crops and moist-soil plants is rated poor.

MONTROSE CA lost all its row crops and moist-soil vegetation to flooding. The lake is slightly higher than normal, but 14 blinds will be available for hunters.

SETTLE’S FORD CA missed flooding, and it goes into the hunting season with eight of 14 pools full or nearly so. Wet weather prevented timely crop planting, so floodable grain acreage is only fair, and crop harvests will be delayed. Moist-soil vegetation on this area is in good condition.

COON ISLAND CA was under water until the first week in July, so there are no food plots. However, moist-soil vegetation grew well, creating food and cover, and the timbered areas look good.

DUCK CREEK CA experienced extensive flood damage to its infrastructure in March. Much of that damage has been repaired, but hunters may have to take detours around damaged portions of some area roads. Area managers were able to get some grain planted, and native, moist-soil vegetation did well, creating a good mix of habitat for ducks. Pools 2, 3 and 8 will be flooded late this year to help maintain the health of green-tree hunting areas.

The area formerly known as Dark Cypress Swamp CA now is the Greenbrier Unit of Duck Creek CA. It will have one hunting spot available if Castor River is high enough to flood the area.

A new addition to Duck Creek CA, north of the town of Greenbrier, now is called the Dark Cypress Swamp Unit of Duck Creek CA. It will have four to six hunting spots to be allocated through the morning draw at Duck Creek.

Of all the state’s managed wetland areas, TEN MILE POND CA seems to have been flooded deepest. Inundations from March through June covered parts of this area with up to 18 feet of water. Then drought set in. This double whammy made grain plantings sparse, but native plants, millet plantings and marsh grasses did surprisingly well. The end result is good habitat for migrating waterfowl. However, continued dry weather could hamper efforts to flood wetland units. Wheat, winter rye and annual rye grasses have been planted to attract geese to the area.

OTTER SLOUGH CA had no flooding this year, and hunters should find conditions there the same as last year. Moist-soil vegetation is in good condition, and floodable crops fair.

LITTLE RIVER CA’s crops failed due to flooding. Subsequent dry weather allowed only fair moist-soil vegetation growth, and continued dry conditions could interfere with flooding wetland units. Overall predictions are for poor to fair hunting.

Little River CA will be open to hunting on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays again this year. Four of the area’s units will be open each hunting day, and these units will be rotated to provide resting days. This strategy is designed to prevent waterfowl from deserting the area due to hunting pressure, a condition hunters often refer to as being “shot out.” Like last year, hunting will be on a first-come, first-served basis. This provides a spillover hunting location for hunters who fail to draw in at Duck Creek, Otter Slough and Ten Mile Pond CAs.