They're Up... They're Down

When wild game populations decline, hunters often are the first to suggest restricted seasons. This reflects their strong conservation ethic and general support for wildlife management.

Wildlife populations usually cannot be increased, however, by simply shortening the hunting season or reducing bag limits. Hunting regulations not only must take into account the level of harvest, but also the influence of reproductive capacity, life span and habitat.

Species with short life spans and the ability to produce large numbers of young, such as cottontail rabbits, are not affected by harvest to the same degree as long-lived species, such as deer. A certain compensation also occurs for most species: if the number of animals taken by hunters increases, the number of animals lost to predators, disease or accidents decreases. The capacity for compensation is believed to be greater for short-lived than long-lived species.

It may come as a surprise to learn that regulations are not always designed to maximize population size and harvest. When the Conservation Department sets regulations for dozens of species each year, we also attempt to respond to hunting traditions and hunters' preferences.

Because some hunters' attitudes change each year-often as much as the weather does-it is nearly impossible to respond to short-term changes in hunters' views. We, therefore, make recommendations for hunting regulations based on a combination of population status, long-term average weather, habitat, migration and hunters' input.

Two examples, waterfowl and turkeys, help contrast differences in approaches to regulations, as well as the factors that determine annual population status.

Ducks and Geese

Ducks and geese are migratory species, so hunting regulations governing their harvest are derived internationally. Federal guidelines in Canada and the U.S. provide broad frameworks, from which states and provinces tailor seasons to match specific migration timing, local populations and habitat conditions. The broad guidelines are necessary because we hunt waterfowl for an extended period, from September in Canada through January or later in the southern United States.

Duck populations are dramatically affected by changes in habitat conditions in breeding, migration and wintering areas. When good habitat conditions prevail, as during the mid to late 1990s, ducks flourish and hunting regulations are liberal.

Drought overwhelmed duck habitats during the 1980s and, as duck numbers declined and habitat deteriorated, restrictive seasons were employed to ensure that breeding numbers would be adequate when wetlands again improved.

There is little doubt that duck populations primarily responded to improved wetland conditions during the 1990s. A reduced harvest likely contributed to