Dr. Frank Rohwer grew up duck hunting the Chesapeake Bay, pursued a career in waterfowl-related applied sciences, and is currently President and Chief Scientist for Delta Waterfowl. After spending time together in a North Dakota duck blind, Rohwer and Ramsey Russell discuss Delta Waterfowl’s origins and pertinent North American waterfowl management issues, to include a new proposed management scenario for northern pintails. How’d Rohwer’s earlier hunting experiences influence career direction? What are Delta Waterfowl’s origins? Why are pintail populations struggling? Is the restrictive US pintail bag limit working? Why might increased bag limits be beneficial, and what are the hurdles? How’s the drought going to affect future US bag limits? Does hunter harvest harm duck populations? How does pintail management differ from canvasbacks or mallards? Delta Waterfowl’s vision is abundant waterfowl and endless opportunities for hunters. Never has it been more obvious than in today’s enlightening discussion.
Sitting Down with Delta Waterfowl President & Chief Scientist
Delta is an old organization but it’s been about hunting. You know, we’re focused on the prairies and breeding ducks, but we do that because we love the duck hunting.
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, I’m in North Dakota today and got a very special guest Mr. Frank Rohwer, Delta Waterfowl President and Chief Scientist. We just got out of a duck blind up here at Jeff Polios. It was a nice brisk morning to a Mississippi boy. Frank, thanks for joining us this morning.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: It’s great to be here. It was fun to be out there.
Ramsey Russell: You’ve been busy this time of year. I know you were up late burning the candle and come in this morning and what’s got you busy this time of year?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Well, this is a great time of year to just be out in the field, looking at the fruits of what you’ve done for the last several months. So, it’s great to be out and get to go duck hunting and enjoy what brought us here. Delta is an old organization but it’s been about hunting. You know, we’re focused on the prairies and breeding ducks, but we do that because we love the duck hunting.
Ramsey Russell: I had even noticed on the back of your pickup truck; Delta Waterfowl is a hunter’s organization. Isn’t that what you all say, a hunter’s organization?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: It sure is. We recognized it a bunch of years ago. We’ve been doing waterfowl research forever, at least since the 30’s. But we realize that we do this because of duck hunting, we don’t do this because ducks are endangered or about to go extinct, we do it because we want to produce a lot of ducks and we want to make sure that we can have duck hunting well into the future.
Frank Rohwer’s Duck Hunting & Delta Waterfowl History
I’ve been associated with Delta Waterfowl since 1976, the first year I went up there as an undergraduate, and then I did my graduate work through Delta.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s back up a little bit. Frank, where did you come from? Where is your origins? And where’d you grow up? Did you grow up duck hunting?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: I did, I got lucky. I grew up on the Chesapeake Bay and in a sense I got lucky because I watched the Chesapeake fall apart when I was a kid. But yeah, I grew up duck hunting so I would chase duck ducks on public land in Maryland. Big day for me was to get 3 ducks, I could always get my black ducks, but getting a bonus duck. When we had those 3 bird limits it was something, so getting a wigeon or mallard or a pintail that really was a big day. But yeah, I loved it on those Chesapeake Bay marshes. But then, by chance I went out to Kansas to hunt, I went out there when I was a senior in high school and I just couldn’t believe seeing flocks of thousands of mallards and hunting on the Kansas River and being able to shoot 5 ducks, I just thought that was like – that was heaven. So, I grew up in Maryland, I went to school in Kansas for a Bachelor’s degree.
Ramsey Russell: What led you to Kansas?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: I had an older brother that was out there doing work as a scientist and so I got to go out there and hunted with him and I thought, well that’s heaven, so I went to Kansas to go to school. And when I started I was thinking engineering architecture but by chance when I went to Kansas State and took some biology classes, I met a student that was working at the Delta Research station up North. And that sounded like the coolest thing in the world. And I quickly realized that engineering architecture is okay, but I love biology. So I became a wildlife student and then met this guy named Pat Caldwell who worked at Ducks Unlimited for much of his career, but he was a Delta student. He told me about Delta and I thought, man, that’s the perfect place to be. So, I got to be an undergraduate assistant to go up and help graduate students at the Delta marsh and throughout Canada, and I completely fell in love with waterfowl and duck biology. I’ve been associated with Delta Waterfowl since 1976, the first year I went up there as an undergraduate, and then I did my graduate work through Delta. I happened to go to Washington State to do a Master’s and worked as a Delta student and then I did my PhD where I worked on waterfowl again out in the prairies of Manitoba, but both funded by Delta to do this work on ducks and I happened to be a student at the University of Pennsylvania and that was not heaven. So, living in downtown Philadelphia, no, that was tough. But in the summer, I spent my summers up on the prairies working on ducks.
Changes in the Chesapeake Bay
I watched the submerged aquatic vegetation disappear, and then the ducks disappeared, and then the fish disappeared.
Ramsey Russell: Growing up on the Chesapeake Bay, a couple of things – do you remember your first duck?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Oh yeah. I actually shot my first duck in New Jersey, but when we moved to Maryland I thought, oh now, I found heaven. There were canvasbacks and that was when the Chesapeake was still doing well. We had submerged aquatic vegetation and there were huge rafts of canvasbacks on the Susquehanna flats. And I lived just up the river from the Naval Academy on the Severn River and even on the Severn River, there was lots of submerged aquatics and I could paddle a canoe out in the river and hunt right there, like in places you wouldn’t dream of hunting now, there were no ducks. I watched the submerged aquatic vegetation disappear, and then the ducks disappeared, and then the fish disappeared.
Ramsey Russell: What happened up at the Chesapeake Bay? Why did all that stuff disappear? What was going on?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Well, a lot of things happened. The Severn River happens to have a lot of – there was huge influx of people, well we moved there and my family moved there and lots of others did and so you had all this suburban development. And folks that lived on the river wanted beaches, they’d actually try and get rid of the submerged aquatics and then they were a little surprised when the fish disappeared. Well, if you don’t have plants, you can’t have fish food eventually. So, that was part of it. But a lot of what happened in the Chesapeake was just too much fertilizer coming in, coming down the Susquehanna River and over fertilizing the bay and then you had this shift towards an algal system that shaded out submerged aquatics, too much sediment flowing in from all the construction, so a variety of things. Chesapeake went from being the most productive estuary in the world to essentially having a real tough time.
Ramsey Russell: Getting back to that first duck in New Jersey – I like to ask people like yourself about that first duck, if they can remember because it’s kind of like the first kiss, you never forget. And when people describe that first duck a lot of times that might have been 19 or 20 or 5, but there’s something about it. You just see this little lightning bolt in their eyes when they start describing the first time they saw that duck come in and they pulled the trigger and saw that duck flopping on the water. What was your first duck? And who are you with? And what do you remember about that fateful day?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: I like that Ramsey because I can’t remember my first kiss.
Ramsey Russell: I can’t either but I remember my first duck.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: But I can remember my first duck, yeah. I was with my dad hunting and I got to admit my dad wasn’t a great waterfowl hunter. I quickly started teaching him how to hunt waterfowl but he liked it. And so we were paddling this old kayak that he had built with wooden framing and canvas, like it was old school and super light but we’re paddling in a salt marsh down in a little cut and we flushed a black duck and I got to shoot it out of the front of the kayak. We were jump shooting. And that was a cool experience. And I’ve always been in love with black ducks since that first duck. Being in Maryland hunting marshes that largely didn’t have many ducks anymore, they had been fabulous but when the Chesapeake fell apart, there just wasn’t much food in that ecosystem. And yet black ducks were there and I could go walking around and find black ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Hindsight 2020, did your love for duck hunting and seeing the Chesapeake Bay wither, did it shape kind of how you approach or who you are as a biologist?
Working for Delta Waterfowl
Dr. Frank Rohwer: I have to admit I don’t think so. Actually my first real job and I put off getting a job for a long time, I love being a student. I got a Bachelor’s degree, and a Master’s degree, and a PhD ,and then like a lot of good science guys, I put it off being a taxpayer for a little while longer and did a postdoc up at Queen’s University. But my first job was back at the University of Maryland actually. And teaching wildlife courses to undergraduates in a wildlife program, it’s really kind of cool to have had that history in the Chesapeake Bay. Because you’ve got this fabulous estuary right next to Washington DC where federal law that protects wildlife and fisheries and so it was a cool experience. But I don’t think that’s what drove me, what drove me is going to Kansas State and seeing waterfowl and then getting the opportunity to be an undergraduate and a student at Delta Waterfowl. That’s what really shaped my life as a professional waterfowl person.
Ramsey Russell: You were telling me in the blind earlier that at the time the Delta Waterfowl Research Center only hired seniors and graduate students, a lot of the work up there done by graduate students but you were a freshman or sophomore, how did you end up landing up there so early?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Remember my brother was in science, so I went to Kansas State and I had an advantage that a lot of undergraduates didn’t have it, having worked as a research assistant for my brother who was 12 years older and had a PhD already. And so when I went to Kansas State, I was kind of an oddball student knowing that I wanted to do research and knew how to do research and the Delta model at the time when I first got to Kansas was they funded graduate students – and that’s still our model for doing research. We want to fund graduate students because students work really hard on a project and honestly we don’t pay them that much. They know that they’re going to go out and get a job, they get a degree, so they’ll work really hard on a project. And so it accomplishes two things, we get great research done and we’re training the next generation of waterfowl leaders, which we really like. But the traditional model was we funded graduate students at any wildlife institution in the US or Canada. And many of the students, the graduate students that we funded, they needed help in the summer and so the traditional plan was you’d hire seniors from an undergraduate program, they come and help and then they’d enter a graduate program if they were great students. And so mainly you had to be a senior to work at Delta. Well, I learned about Delta as a freshman and I applied and got immediately rejected. And as a sophomore, I turned it up a little bit and I worked harder and sent lots of letters and I still got rejected. And so then I said, all right, this is crazy, I got to get serious. So, I went to – I think it was an international duck symposium that Ducks Unlimited hosted, I’m pretty sure it was in St. Louis, but I followed the then science guy around, Bruce Bat, Dr. Bruce Bat and I must have hounded him for like an hour. And he finally just – I think he broke down and said, okay, we’ll hire you, get out of my hair. So, I got to go up to Delta –
Ramsey Russell: The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Yeah, that was me. I got to go up to Delta for 2 summers as an undergraduate and so I worked with a variety of graduate students. Guys that are now mostly retired but guys like Al-Afton and at LSU and I worked for Elm, Mike Anderson, Gary Nectarline, Rick Kaminski. I worked with him out in Saskatchewan on wigeons, and with Mike Anderson, we were working on canvasbacks, Al was working on scaups. I pulled into the Delta station my first time ever and met Rick Kaminski, who’s pretty well known waterfowl guy.
Ramsey Russell: One of the most influential people in my life.
What is it Like Doing Research with Delta Waterfowl?
And so I went to Delta with a bunch of different ideas about cool things to work on, but the one I really was stuck on was, why do ducks lay 10 eggs?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Yeah, I can remember getting out of my little Renault piece of junk car and Rick comes over, and he was working on his – and who the hell are you and what are you doing? He was just assertive and a great fun guy. He was working on right there at the Delta Marsh on testing the hemi marsh concept. Rick was the first person to actually test that idea that had been floating around in the waterfowl world for 20 years. So it was a fantastic experience.
Ramsey Russell: What did you actually do research on up there?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Oh my goodness.
Ramsey Russell: I know, it’s been a long time ago, what was your – because I met somebody the other day Mr. Jim Lifer and he was explaining to me that – I guess his graduate research was kind of exploring why hen mallards molt differently or later than drakes, which everybody knows why now, but there was a time that people didn’t know.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: One of the cool things about Delta Waterfowl, one of the reasons I fell in love with the place is, is when I first went there, it’s kind of a remarkable system that students got to choose what they wanted to work on. And like I told you, I was kind of a weird student because I had this research background because my brother had a PhD. And so as an undergraduate at Kansas State, I don’t know why, but one of the coolest questions I ever – sort of was introduced to was the question of why do birds lay x number of eggs? And the ecology professor that was teaching me at the time, guy named Dr. Chris Smith, I just thought his class – his class was the one where after taking that class as a sophomore, I immediately changed my major from architecture to wildlife biology -the class was that influential. And one of the coolest things he talked about was this notion of why do birds lay some number of eggs. And they talked about all these cool experiments, but all the birds he was talking about were what we think of dickie birds, pastoring birds, birds that feed their young and so as a guy that was interested in ducks, I was thinking what about ducks? The ducklings feed themselves, so it’s not like, you know, mama bird can only feed 4 chicks. And so I really wanted to answer this question of why do ducks lay 10 eggs? 10 is a round number, pretty simple. And I got to looking into it and nobody ever worked on that question in the duck world. And so I went to Delta with a bunch of different ideas about cool things to work on, but the one I really was stuck on was, why do ducks lay 10 eggs? Why not 15 or why not 5? And so that’s what I worked on. And Ramsey I now categorize what I did is sort of – I’ll use the term I use all the time, I call it esoteric bullshit research. It’s an interesting biological question, but when it comes to waterfowl management, it’s not terribly relevant.
Ramsey Russell: In terms of practical management, what’s the point?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Right. And so in the old days a lot of Delta students, like Rick Kaminski was working on a very applied sort of question is 50% cover and 50% open water really the optimal habitat arrangement for ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Pretty dang close.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: And you know that had been the hypothesis and Rick actually demonstrated that yeah, that is the case when he did experiments to create 70% water vs 30% cover or the other way, he found that, yeah, it’s a 50-50 guy named Wellard long ago proposed it, but nobody had ever tested it. Rick did the testing. Well, there’s a cool applied project. My project was very different, it was, I wanted to answer why 10 eggs? And so I did these crazy experiments where I create clutches of 20 eggs and see can incubate them. Oh sure she can incubate them and hatch them just fine. So, that was my background and in the process I was exposed to all these other Delta students, some of which are doing other sort of esoteric questions like that, some are doing very applied work. So it was a fantastic experience working at Delta because another 10 students work on other projects and you learn from Mike Anderson, and Al Afton and Rick, and all the other students, there was Jim Laverne. So, that’s what makes Delta – working at Delta as a student, so unique and so fantastic.
Ramsey Russell: And I asked you this morning and what is the relationship between the Delta Waterfowl Research Center up in Manitoba and Delta Waterfowl?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: That’s our home base. So we started – as an organization, we go way back to 1911, but that was as an advocacy organization in East Coast. If you know, the history of wildlife, we sort of reached sort of a rock bottom in terms of wildlife numbers in the late 1800, early 1900, we had tried to exterminate bison. We had shot white tails almost out of existence and waterfowl were being heavily harvested. And so you had a bunch of folks mostly on the East Coast, but everywhere recognizes, and we got to change the way we approach wildlife and treat wildlife as recreation and not commerce. So that was a big changing point. But the chance event was fabulous conservationist, philanthropist named James Ford Bell, he’s famous for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, General Mills. Well, he was a fantastic waterfowl hunter and he watched waterfowl hunting decline in Minnesota. So, he came up to Manitoba, bought up a bunch of land on the Delta marsh and he had this great conservation ethic, he wanted to really help waterfowl. So as a hunter, he wanted to return to ducks for every one he shot and what a cool philosophy. And that was back in the 1920’s and 30’s. And so, he realized that he didn’t really know how to do that, so he elicited the help of best biologists and wildlife biology at the time Aldo Leopold. And he invited Leopold to come up and Leopold said, well we really need to learn about ducks on the breeding ground. We’ve been studying him on the wintering grounds, but we don’t know much about breeding ducks. And Leopold had a student named Hope Bomb and Hope Bomb became the first scientific director of Delta. And so the Delta research station started as a result of James Ford Bell and this property we had on the Delta marsh. And so we started training graduate students, fabulous students, Lyle Souls and the like came and worked at Delta, and Hope Bomb, of course, was doing a lot of research. And so Hope Bomb really recognized that ducks aren’t produced at the Delta Marsh in huge numbers.
Ramsey Russell: It’s their staging area.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Yeah, it’s a staging marsh. And people didn’t even know what staging was at the time but we know ducks gather up after the breeding season on these staging marshes and then they migrate. And so that’s what Delta is. Sure, it produced some ducks and he wrote fabulous books, ‘Canvasback on a Prairie Marsh’ is a classic ‘Lyle Souls Prairie Ducks’ another classic. But we learned that ducks are produced in the prairies in pothole country and Hope Bomb was a great advocate of that. And so a lot of Delta students like myself – when I started as a graduate student in 1978 I didn’t work at the Delta Marsh, I actually worked west of there in the pothole country at Manitoba. But that’s the origin is – and we still maintain a facility at the Delta marsh and it’s got all that history of the Kirk offer lodge and the Bell lodge, so it’s a fantastic place.
A Focus on Pintails
Pintails are a cool duck, they love shallow wetlands, they’re a prairie duck by and large.
Ramsey Russell: That was a great explanation. I really like recreation versus commerce, which was the birth of conservation as we know it. And how that evolved from a recreational hunter that had a little money to go buy this massive wetland into research that became Delta Waterfowl, the organization for hunters. Changing the subject, I want to talk to you about pintails. Because Frank, if I’m having just a wonderful day, everything in the world is going great like it was last week and 5 of us went and shot 15 brown pintails in Canada and boy, somebody couldn’t stand it. They called me dirty words about all those hen pintails we shot, never mind 80% of them were drake just hadn’t yet molted, or were down in Mexico, and I hold up a dozen beautiful pintail sprigs where it’s legal. Well, I’m the antichrist of Northern pintails. We all know that pintails aren’t doing as well as they could or used to be, I had somebody on here recently this summer talking about mid-winter waterfowl count in 1958. Just in the Klamath basin more pintails were counted that December, January day that exist in the world today. What what’s going on with pintails?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Yeah, well, Klamath, that’s a whole different story, that’s a sad story. But the pintail thing is interesting and you really have to go back a bunch of years to, I think, understand what’s going on with pintails. Pintails are a cool duck, they love shallow wetlands, they’re a prairie duck by and large. There’s a good population that breeds in Alaska and on Arctic deltas, but let’s face it, the majority of the pintails are produced here in the prairies and they tend to be an Eastern prairie duck. We have a lot in North Dakota, but if you think of the center pintail breeding range, it’s Saskatchewan, eastern Alberta. And so pintails sort of grew up as ducks in what we call short grass or mixed grass prairie. All right, so that’s some backdrop and they love shallow wetlands. They got that long neck, but if a pintail had choices feeding 2 inches of water. So, that’s breeding habitat for pintails, is just fairly arid dry prairie in the west. So let’s go back to 1980, about the mid-80s, we started into the last long drought we had and it got dry on the prairies. Now, it’s probably nothing like the dirty 30s when everything dried out. But we had a bunch of years in a row, very dry conditions and duck populations are driven by what happens on the prairies. And so when the water disappeared, the ducks decline and for almost all the ducks that we care about, you name it, mallards teal, pintails, they reach record lows in the late 80’s, early 90’s. But what we didn’t see, we waterfowl folks, is that during this time period, ducks are doing terrible, but agriculture is having a tough time on the prairies, and there was this ag revolution, at least in prairie Canada and it actually started at University of Manitoba. Those folks at University of Manitoba recognized that the problem with wheat production in the prairies is about moisture and when you’re in Western Saskatchewan, it’s a dry area and in a normal year, it’s 15 inches of rain. And so what they need is moisture to make the wheat grow. And so they recognize that instead of doing what was normal and tilling up the wheat stubble, you cut wheat in august September and then they would go in until the stubble. Well, instead of doing that, they realized they should let the stubble sit there catch snow, and that would retain moisture from the winter snow, and then you’d have some ground that would produce wheat. So we had this Ag revolution over a remarkably short period of time, everybody thinks agriculture moves very slowly. But in 10 years we went from tilling the prairies to not tilling the prairies. So farmers in Western Saskatchewan leave the stubble and they go in and plant in the spring, we call it zero till, you just go in tilt the stubble once and in one pass you seed it, till it and seed it. Well, here’s the problem with no till agriculture and leaving stubble, a mallard’s view of stubble is that it wouldn’t dream of going in into stubble and nesting its way – too sparse. But pintails remember they’re a western duck and so they view short grass as ideal nesting cover, so pintails nest in stubble. In fact, they don’t show any preference. We’ve planted – Ducks Unlimited Canada has done this quite often – they’ll buy a quarter section of land and planted to grass and not allow any grazing and it looks gorgeous to me as a waterfowl biologist. But to a pintail it doesn’t look any different than stubble, we searched a bunch of those, do your quarters and you’ll find just as many pintail nest in a quarter section of wheat stubble as you do in a beautiful piece of grass and you’ll find way more mallard nests in the grass. But pintails are the same number in this quarter section of grass and meanwhile there 1000 quarter sections of stubble. And so the pintails go in and nest in the stubble. So, here’s what I thought would happen, and we had a graduate student worked on this guy named Ken Rich. I thought the pintails would nest in the stubble and be fairly successful, have low predation rates, until John Deere, they came along and planted it, and then the eggs would get scrambled. Well, I was dead wrong. The nest success in stubble is terrible. I mean we often hit years of 2-3% nest success in wheat stubble. But the problem is the pintails would re nest and they go right back into the stubble. And if a pintail got lucky enough in the stubble to avoid the predators, that big implement is 100% effective, it fills up all the stubble and the eggs don’t survive that, so you get scrambled eggs. So, even though pintails renested more than we thought, we put transmitters on them, track them around and a lot of pintails renested, but they renested right in the stubble. So that’s our biggest problem with pintails, in my opinion, is that we’ve really cut back on production because so many pintails nest in stubble. Now in areas where we have grass and we have cattle, cattle and ducks get along great because ducks need grass and when you got grass, even if it’s overgrazed, it’s still way better than stubble. So, we’ve had some good agricultural changes in prairie Canada, in terms of there’s quite a lot more grassland now for cattle but the stubble thing is the big downfall now.
Ramsey Russell: Okay, so since the 70’s or 80’s, different land use, agriculture, we’ve got decreased productivity, so let’s just quit killing –
Dr. Frank Rohwer: We’ve got decreased productivity.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s just shoot one piece in the United States that will fix things, right?
Does Hunting Affect Duck Populations?
But harvest rates are so low that hunting really doesn’t impact duck populations.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Okay, now hold on and let me finish. Remember pintails love shallow wetlands and one of the wetlands that are getting drained most rapidly in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and every other place, are the easy ones. Any farmer can drain a tiny little 2” deep wetland, sometime in the summer it will dry out, so with even with his equipment he can put a ditch in. So he drains that little wetland that pintails love into a bigger wetland. And so he might improve the conditions for a canvasback wetland, canvasbacks never nest in a 2 inch wetland. They don’t use that stuff. They use the semi-permanence like the big ponds like we’re hunting on. And so you get consolidation drainage. So there’s no doubt that part of the pintail problem is we’ve lost wetlands, but even when we’ve had incredible wetlands in recent years, we still don’t have pintail production like it should be, and that’s the stubble problem. So yeah, the obvious thing, and duck hunters all suffer I think inherently from this notion that they’re doing harm to the thing they love. But harvest rates are so low that hunting really doesn’t impact duck populations. It just flat out doesn’t impact duck populations.
Ramsey Russell: Hunting doesn’t impact duck population.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Yeah, that’s my take home. Absolutely. In the last 40 years we’ve done a ton of work on this question, right? It’s the age old question, are we shooting too many ducks and flat out for ducks, the answer’s no. Some of the best studies that have been done show that hunting doesn’t have any impact on survival. Now, we know that if you if you go up and harvest 40% of a duck population, but we haven’t done that. You can’t find a study in North America where we’ve done that. Now, geese are a different story. Remember, if you have inherently much higher survival rates. Look at geese in the absence of hunting, 90% of adults survive, so you don’t have to have real high hunting mortality to impact the goose population. In fact, for most dark geese, if we hit 25% harvest rates, the population’s going to decline and we’ve done that experiment unfortunately several times. The Atlantic Flyway of Canada Geese, we had 800,000 of them and then we shot too many and then we had to close the season for 10 years for the population to recover. But ducks are a different animal, they don’t have that really high survival rate. So when we harvest 15% of mallards, we are not impacting the population with hunting. And mallards, we harvest at much higher rates, pintail harvest rates right now are so ridiculously low that we actually have a hard time measuring them because the recovery rates of banded pintails are so low that we almost have to pull data over 5 years to get a good survey. And we’ve done that. The responsible thing to do when a duck population declines dramatically is to say, okay, maybe we should cut back on harvest. Well, we’ve done that for 25 years. And has it helped pintails? Not a bit. pintails have – we’re no longer close to a continental average of around 6 million, that’s what we thought was about right based on the 70’s. But with changes in agriculture on the prairies, I don’t think we’re going to see 6 million pintails again until great things happen. If we get a huge expansion of winter wheat, well then pintails will do great because they nest in winter wheat and they won’t face the predation problems or the tillage problems. But that hasn’t happened yet in prairie Canada because winter wheat doesn’t like that terrible winners. So, the very restrictive regulations that we have for pintails now really don’t make sense and Delta has funded a bunch of really top notch graduate students that have looked at the data inside and out and it’s pretty clear that we could have much higher pintail limits and still have no impact on pintails. So, that’s something Delta is advocating for, we’d love to see a 3 in 1 system for pintails where you could shoot after November 15th. It’s hard when you’re hunting in Canada in September to tell pintails apart. You shoot them and I’m pleased when I shoot a bunch of pintails in September, oh yeah, most of them were drakes, they got that little tinge of blue on the bill and when you look at the wing, you can see it’s clearly a drake, but I can’t pick them out at 35 yards.
Ramsey Russell: Flying 48 miles per hour.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Yeah, so you’d have restrictive pintail regulations until you can easily tell males and females apart. But mid-November – and that’s when most pintails are being harvested and the big states in the Pacific Flyway, Texas and Louisiana, those guys can tell pintails apart, it’s easy in November and December. So have a 3 and 1 regulation where you could shoot 3 drakes, but any day you can’t shoot more than 1 hen pintail.
Ramsey Russell: Have you all been out trying to advocate this new management scenario for Northern pintails? Have you ran into any resistance?
The Effects of Covid on Waterfowl Data Collection
Now, we have enough data that we can get by but I don’t think the service is going to entertain any changes to regulations until we get back to normalcy and have a duck count.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: We really haven’t done too much avocations yet because too much advocacy yet because we’ve really wanted to get our ducks in a row in terms of the research, make sure the science was sound and we’ve really done that. So I think we’re in a real good position to advocate. And I think the services recognized based on the great science, we’ve done that, yeah, we should do something about pintails. Now, the trick is we’re in this strange time period right now because of COVID, we haven’t done duck counts for 2 years in a row. We rely on the May surveys, we call them the May surveys where we go up and fly trans acts from – we start in South Dakota and we fly all the way up into Boreal Canada and the Arctic deltas in Alaska. Well, we haven’t done those for 2 years in a row now. So we don’t have the baseline population data that we really need. Now, we have enough data that we can get by but I don’t think the service is going to entertain any changes to regulations until we get back to normalcy and have a duck count.
Ramsey Russell: But they’ve already set the seasons. I mean as I understand it, next year is going to be a liberal framework because of this new management where they’re kind of playing ahead. Because I’m confused. I’m asking you Frank, because I’m seriously confused.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: I agree with you Ramsey, it’s a confusing and I think a little bit crazy process. All right, let’s go backwards. We have 40 years of data saying harvest doesn’t really have much impact on ducks. We still want to be responsible in the way we set regulations and so I sort of thought, without 2 years of data, right? We have a ridiculous drought this summer and it was dry here in North Dakota, it was dry in South Dakota, it was dry everywhere on the prairies and we haven’t seen that for a long time. Yeah, we see Saskatchewan’s been dry for 3 years in a row at least, but last year we had pockets of water in the Dakotas that were exceptional. Well this year, then the bottom fell out last winter, zero snow. I live in Bismarck and I’ve seen snow drifts that meant I had snow piled on my driveway up as high as my bobcat would lift, 10ft up, so much snow last year, no snow at all. Zero. And that’s the extent of how dry it was. Well, that drought affected every place from Alberta right down to South Dakota. And so we’ve got a real odd situation right now. We’ve had pretty dry conditions for a couple of years in Saskatchewan, really dry last year, last summer during this past breeding season, and dry everywhere, and we haven’t seen that in a long time on the prairies. So it’s a tough time to propose a change in pintail regulations when we have terrible duck production this year and two years with no counts. So, we got to get back to kind of normal.
Ramsey Russell: Get back to normal and see what’s what.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Now, here’s what you’re talking about is, honestly a surprise to me that we just set not only – we set regulations the frameworks and it’s liberal, so we’re going to see in the Mississippi Flyway, for instance, the same thing we’ve been seeing for years, 60 days and 6 ducks and they set that – I was a little surprised basically. That came out in September and this is when we haven’t done duck counts. Now, we’ve done estimations of ducks through some sophisticated modeling, but I just don’t have a whole lot of faith that those models are correct. And we predicted how much water will be on the prairies. Well, climate models just aren’t that good that I’m real confident that we know how many ponds will be on the prairies. So, I thought this might be the year where we said, okay, we never used to set seasons so far in advance. We used to have a stressful process where we did the duck counts in May, gathered that data together and by July we did the best we could to summarize all the data on pond numbers and duck numbers and then we’d set regulations. Well, that’s a tough process for the Fish and Wildlife service but we did it for 50 years. And then 2016 we changed and we started setting regulations out a year in advance but remember we had all that data on hand, so we were only predicting one year out in advance. Well, now we have this gap in data and so I was a little surprised when we set liberal seasons for next season.
Ramsey Russell: Frank, I’m just a simple man, I’m not a scientist, I’m just a simple guy and it worries me in the same way that me out there running a debit card and running a credit card without looking at my account balance, it concerns me just as a simple man that in 2 years, I don’t know what my bank account looks like. But I’m out there redecorating the house, my wife is out there redecorating the house with a credit card. Should I be worried? You already said maybe there’s negligible harvest. So I mean, but should we be worried?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: I don’t think we should be worried because remember I’m going to go back to that statement I made a while ago – we’ve got 40 years of data saying harvest doesn’t impact duck numbers. And if I truly believe that, I shouldn’t be worried and I’m not worried. But they’re stuck. There are some regulations, I just don’t think they logically make much sense. We got pintails that they’ve been hovering at around 3 million and you get to shoot one. You got canvasbacks hovering at 700,000 and this year you get to shoot 2, and a canvasback has a guaranteed poor reproductive potential than a pintail. And so, we know canvasbacks when it’s dry, they just flat out won’t breed and they don’t try and find a different area to breed. They come home – they’re like geese, they come home and if home is dry, they just sit there and say, I’m not nesting, I’m going to wait until next year. pintails will at least move around a little bit and if you have phenomenal water in South Dakota and North Dakota last couple of years, we’ve had incredible pintail numbers here because they’ve settled where it’s wet. So, you got some ducks that are a little bit more sensitive, so I’d worry a little bit more about canvasbacks than I’d worry about pintails but I still think –
Ramsey Russell: Mallards are driving the whole machine though, aren’t they?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, Mallards drive our harvest regulations, there’s no doubt about that, at least in most fly ways, not the Atlantic flyway and that’s a whole different. Yeah, I realized the minute I said Atlantic flyway. Oh, that’s a whole story.
Ramsey Russell: We’ll save that for our future conversation. You know what, I know, this is a very small sample size, but in the month or so I spent up in prairie Canada lot of adult mallards, very few hatch year, pintails, I’d say 50-60% hatch year birds and I wasn’t expecting that, but those birds we were harvesting anyway found somewhere to nest.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Yeah. I’ve been a little surprise. The Delta Marsh this year because of the drought and because of some changes happening with like Manitoba’s is as low as I’ve ever seen it and I’ve been up there since the 70s. But because it was so low and so shallow bays that used to be full of canvasbacks were now 4 inches deep and it made ideal pintail habitat. So, we shot a fair number of pintails at the Delta marsh and I can never remember doing that in the past many years I’ve hunted there. And I was a little surprised that there were a fair number of juveniles in there, I expected it to be all adults. So now I am seeing – from what I’ve seen of the ducks and I being a duck geek – every damn duck that gets shot, I look at and see age and sex. I’ve been a little surprised at how many juvenile’s I’ve seen in pintails like you said and some of those could have been coming out of the Arctic and Boreal Canada where habitat conditions just don’t change that much relative to the prairies. But for mallards, yeah, it’s been a little depressing, I’ve seen mostly adults from what I’ve shot.
The University Hunt Program with Delta Waterfowl
Like you said in my most recent surveys of students, it was 70%-80% had never hunted and they’re in a wildlife program.
Ramsey Russell: Little bit of a change of subject. Delta Waterfowl research was driven by a lot of students. It’s always been very graduate student research oriented, guys that get out there and collect the data, we talked about that in depth and no small coincidence I guess, one of the most impressive programs – gosh, I love this guy. When I went through wildlife Mississippi State University it was 60 of us, we were all hook and bullet biologists. Now there are 350 kids in that same program, 90% of them never hunted nor fished, they just watch nature channels or volunteer at zoos, or whatever have you like that. Delta Waterfowl has got a program where you all are going out into these universities and you had told me in the blind earlier that this – for you especially this has been like a recurring thing – it’s all the way you’re back at LSU. Let’s talk about that a little bit because it really encourages me introducing especially our future policy makers to the value of hunting.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: I completely agree. So, let me go back and start about this, talk about the history. This thing evolved a couple of times at least twice and probably more with old professors like me, as a professor at LSU for well over 20 years. And when I first went there in 1990 it was hook and bullets, we had 80 students and the vast majority of them hunted. Bubba’s from South Louisiana and they knew hunting and they were becoming professionals in the wildlife field. Well now our program at LSU – and I still talk like I’m still faculty there – but well over 300 students and in wildlife, just wildlife, not forestry, wildlife. And the majority of students are from suburban Baton Rouge, Metairie, Lake Charles, and they watch nature shows. Like you said in my most recent surveys of students, it was 70%-80% had never hunted and they’re in a wildlife program. And so I started thinking that this is a bad deal. What I did in a senior, in a capstone class called Wildlife Management Techniques, is I required students to get a hunter safety card, and I became a hunter safety instructor through the state and I would teach this class just for LSU students and wildlife program at night. And it was the first week and then of course hunter safety involves a little bit of shooting, well we did a lot of shooting. So we would go to the clay range and shoot, each student would shoot at least a 100-200 shells because most of them had never shot. And as you probably are aware women, men, they love shooting and so the students love this, we’d go in the afternoons or on weekends and they’d become at least respectable shots. Then we’d go hunting and we started hunting at LSU on state areas. The state loved this idea that we would get these wildlife students out doing something practical and learning how to hunt. And so they opened up an area that had never actually been open for hunting, but it just was poor hunting. So, I worked with the state waterfowl biologist guy named Larry Reynolds at the time and Larry and I came up with the idea. We got to go to southwest Louisiana where there are a lot of ducks and we got to get some club to take us on, and we got super lucky. Somehow we met a couple of guys at Oak Grove, this is a great club, this is one of those storied clubs, they have 25 square miles of fabulous fresh marsh. And a couple of just fantastic guys said, well we’ll sponsor this for a weekend. So I was allowed to bring my wildlife class down there to this beautiful club, just gorgeous. And we would take the students hunting and now they all get to shoot 4 teal, we do this during the special teal season. And the goal was to get students in September when they’re not overwhelmed with finals in December, November, and all sorts of written papers, and so he had time to do it. We go down there and shoot a bunch of ducks and then we bring ducks back, and we dissect the ducks, and learn duck anatomy, and of course take the meat. Then 2 weeks later on a weekend field trip for some other wildlife topic like telemetry, we’d eat the ducks. So those students went from being non-hunters to shooting, to hunting and then to eating wild game, and got the whole experience. Little did I know – I had no idea – a friend of mine and colleague Dr. John Edie at the University of California Davis had seen the same thing, and he had gone through the exact same process. Started hunting public land and then fell into hunting at Paul Bondeson’s Fantastic Club in the Central Valley. And Edie did it a little better than I did it because he involved a whole bunch of state guys when we went to Oak Grove, they used their professional guides, the guys that would take the hunters out, we use them as the guides because you had students split up in a whole bunch of blinds. Well Edie was smart and he got the state waterfowl biologist and federal biologists to be the guides. And so the students not only got to go hunting but they got to interact with a professional in the field there identifying the ducks for them. And so that’s even a better model in my opinion. But we got together and said, hey look, we ought to be doing this at every institution if hook and bullets places like UC Davis, a Cal college, let’s face it as a land grant college in in the Central Valley and great duck habitat, and at Louisiana State, if that’s happening there at University of Maryland or Delaware or University of Minnesota they’re going to have the problem in spades. And so we started this program at Delta and I love it. You know we love to recruit lots and lots of hunters but the most important set of kids to recruit to hunting are the kids that are going to go and be professionals. They’re going to work for Louisiana, Department of Wildlife Fisheries or the US Fish and Wildlife Service or Minnesota DNR and those kids are going to go through the system and yeah, they’ll start as young kids always do in some introductory job but they’re going to work through and become policymakers in 20 years, and we want those policymakers to be familiar with hunting. And so that’s why this university hunting program I think is really our most important hunter recruitment and education program because we may not be converting these kids into hunters, they may go hunting and just enjoy it a few times, but not really get the passion you and I have for it. We’re out there whether it’s 19 degrees yesterday and we’re freezing our ass or it’s nice this morning, but no wind and not many birds, but at least they see it. And by going to some of these high end clubs, they also see that – the North American model of conservation where hunters have paid, you really get to see it when you see 25 square miles of marsh in Louisiana being well managed for ducks. You realize, oh, these guys are putting in a huge amount of money to keep this marsh productive for ducks. And meanwhile we’re seeing all sorts of other wading birds, and shore birds, and wildlife out there, so it’s not just ducks, they’re helping and they’re helping alligators and turtles and reptiles, and you name it. So I think that’s one of the coolest things that Delta is doing is this university hunt program we’re now in. I think this year now of course with COVID and classes having to go online and not be in person, we had a setback, but we’re back to having about 35, 36 institutions this year and I’d love to see it expand. We’ve done the looking around and there are hundreds of universities that we should be at doing this university hunt program.
Ramsey Russell: Just incidentally how can a university, for anybody listening, how can university become involved? Just contact Joel Bryce over Charles office?
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Yeah, we have a guy that Jacob Bushong is in charge of this program. Jacob works directly for Joel but yeah, contact Delta and say, hey, I want to do this. And we don’t do that much, but because we do all these different universe hunting programs, we have good liability insurance, and universities these days, you talk about guns in a university and they freak out. But most wildlife programs actually recognize that this is a big problem and they embrace it. And the state, of course state agencies are very worried about who can they hire that actually has some knowledge of hunting and the importance of hunters and the land management that hunters have always done. So, it’s a great program. I’m very excited about it.
Ramsey Russell: I land on with his last item of discussion. It’s easy, I’m a southern duck hunter and as a duck hunter, I’m optimistic. We go out this morning, Jeff got a beautiful decoy spread soaking for the wooden decoys, and the worst possible wind that can blow on this permanent spread is in our face. But I’m optimistic, and I go out and hunt, and have a beautiful drake canvasback to show for it. And you don’t know, do you go right? But as a Southern duck hunter, it’s easy if I let myself, I can become discouraged. We’ve got all this this long algorithm of changes, and the habitat, and changes, and crops, and agricultural practices, and culture marsh erosion and I hate the word global warming, but this warming trend, all these things seem to be conspiring against the Southern duck hunter. And why should I not be discouraged man? It’s just sometimes, you know, I just want to be discouraged about duck hunting, the future of duck hunting. What’s what, say you?
What Does the Future of Waterfowl Hunting Hold?
I actually, when I look into the future, I worry kind of more about duck hunters as a population than I do ducks.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Yeah, well, I was a Louisiana duck hunter for 20 years and now I kind of feel happy, I’m blessed. I live here in North Dakota and I love it. I love living in Louisiana and hunting down there and I hope I spread some of my ashes on the delta, that’s just such a magic place. But I’ve looked at Louisiana harvest and it’s tough down there. Now one thing, those guys have a different expectation. If it’s not a 30 duck average per hunter, they think of that as a poor year, and any Minnesota duck hunter would say 30 ducks a year, wow. So it’s sort of what your expectations are but when we have years like this where duck production is poor here in North Dakota, we’re going to do okay, we’re going to still get ducks because everything passes through North Dakota, everything coming out of Canada, we produce a lot of ducks and so in North Dakota, you can look at harvest and it’s flat across years. But in Louisiana, you’re at the other end of the Flyway in Texas, those states are driven by duck production. And so, you can look back in recent history in Louisiana and you can see some great years when we were producing ducks like crazy, and shooting over 2 million ducks, and last year, less than half a million ducks. And for Louisiana, that’s a disaster, that’s still way more ducks than shot up north but it’s tough. And I love Louisiana because guys grew up as duck hunters, and it’s in their blood. By the time they’re 4 years old or 5, and they go out with their dad, and they’re just sitting there watching. And so, they have different expectations. So it’s tough. But the flip side is, you look at duck numbers and we’re still doing remarkably well –
Ramsey Russell: Despite all the changes, ducks are resilient.
Dr. Frank Rohwer: Despite the changes. I freak out when I look at the prairie sometime and the drainage rates, we haven’t even slowed them down in Saskatchewan in 30 years. But we still have a lot of duck habitat, and we still have a lot of ducks, and so that’s real encouraging. I actually, when I look into the future, I worry kind of more about duck hunters as a population than I do ducks. Ducks are doing pretty well, duck hunters, this just frightens me to see the decline in hunter numbers because for me it’s just fuel for my soul like getting out and being able to go hunting in the fall for ducks and pheasants. I mean that makes my year and I worry that we’re producing generations that don’t connect with wildlife and don’t connect with the natural world and get out there and see what you see when you’re hunting because as you’re out there hunting and some of the coolest things, seeing prairie falcon’s chasing ducks. Well, you don’t see that unless you’re out hunting, out spending a bunch of time in the field. So, I kind of worry about that more than I worry about ducks. And I feel for duck hunting and it shifts, we’re seeing ducks staying north much later than we used to see and just not getting to Louisiana and the numbers they used to major shifts and goose distribution and shifts in duck distribution, so some places are going to see it tougher and some places are going to see it better. But I’m encouraged by ducks are more far more resilient than we’ve sort of given them credit for.
Ramsey Russell: Frank, I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to be here. Folks, you all been listening to Frank Rohwer, President and Chief scientist for Delta Waterfowl. Thank you for being here Frank. And folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. See you next time.