It’s a pretty big deal: Canada recently modernized its migratory birds regulations to include critical possession and transportation rules pertaining to waterfowl hunters. Jim Leafloor, Head of Aquatic Unit for Environment and Climate Change Canada, explains what important rules were changed–and why (link to updated Canada Migratory Birds Regulations provided below). He and Ramsey also discuss Canada’s relatively liberal bag limits (8 mallard, 8 pintails, etc); the important role of resident and non-resident hunters, especially to modern-day waterfowl management; and ongoing drought implications.
Modernizing the Migratory Bird Regulations
But then there were other things that we just kind of outgrown, the regulations had been in place for 100 years, but a lot of things have changed. So we started to ask the question are these the rules that we need for today’s environment and that led to the modernization.
Ramsey Russell: And welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere where today I am in Winnipeg, Manitoba meeting with the head of Aquatic Unit, Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, Mr. Jim Leafloor, how are you, sir?
Jim Leafloor: I am great, thank you.
Ramsey Russell: Thanks for being with me again and congratulations because I’ve heard that the modernization rules that you all worked on for a very long time are officially passed and I’m hearing a lot of good stuff, a lot of people that know about it are happy about it.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, we’re very pleased to finally see the migratory bird regulations updated, a process that probably took upwards of 10 years to complete.
Ramsey Russell: What is the modernization rules? I want to walk through this thing in depth and I want to hear all about what and why you all felt the need to modernize a lot of the rules that pertain to hunting, especially migratory birds.
Jim Leafloor: Well, the migratory bird regulations have been in place for upwards of 100 years in Canada and there were a lot of things that we learned along the way that small things that needed to be updated, some of these were just small editorial things, some had to do with organization of the regulations to make them more understandable or to bring clarity. But then there were other things that we just kind of outgrown, the regulations had been in place for 100 years, but a lot of things have changed. So we started to ask the question are these the rules that we need for today’s environment and that led to the modernization.
Ramsey Russell: What were some of the issues? What were some of the confounding issues that trying to implement antiquated law that had been in place for 100 years that the society had changed, the world has changed in that 100 years, what were some of the problems you were seeing and what were the modifications? What specifically are the modernization rules?
Jim Leafloor: Well, there’s quite a few of them, but there were a couple of major things that needed to be dealt with, one of them was that we needed to recognize the rights of indigenous people in Canada to harvest migratory birds, the prior regulations were not adequate in that respect, so there was some clarification brought there. And we made some fairly significant changes around possession limits for hunting. Most of this, I should say that most of the modernization to date focused on the rules around hunting, there were some other changes brought in as well, but there are additional – this was kind of phase one of a modernization effort and the intent is that some of the regulations around permitting will be next up for modernization.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s talk about some of the migratory bird rules, what were the old rules? What are the new rules?
Jim Leafloor: Well, one of the things that we didn’t have in the old rules was a description, for example of why do we have a migratory game bird hunting permit? We needed to specify, this is what it’s for that, we hunt migratory birds primarily for human consumption and we identify some other legitimate uses as well, but it starts there. We’d also heard from hunters over the years, some complaints about things like possession limits, was this really necessary at a time when really we had very liberal hunting regulations, liberal bag limits, we have overabundance regulations in place where we’re trying to encourage hunters to take large numbers of some species, notably white geese and some cases Canada geese, did we really need to require that hunters had wings attached to their birds. We’re at a time when we’re encouraging them to harvest and they have the ability to harvest very large numbers of birds, this is kind of a creating difficulties for hunters that actually went out and harvested large numbers, now, they’re forced to deal with birds that are with a wing attached, they take up a lot of space, it requires more freezer space, it just makes everything harder when you’re traveling hunter. So, yeah, so a lot of the regulations that we brought in focused on some of those issues, possession limits were brought in during the 1930s during a period of drought, they were never intended actually at the time to stick around, but they did for probably 90 years or so, we’ve had possession limits. But it’s not always been clear to hunters why? Because even if you reach your possession limit, we had fairly liberal rules that allowed you to give those birds away, which people were doing actively sometimes that’s how they manage the birds they harvested by simply giving them away. And we wanted to provide rules that would make it easier for hunters to use and transport and possess those birds that they legally harvested.
Implications of Regulation Changes on Harvesting & Transporting Waterfowl
So ducks geese, anything in the regulations that you can legally harvest once you preserve it, once you clean the birds and preserve it, they no longer count toward a possession limit.
Ramsey Russell: Not everybody’s gotten a memo yet because I have some newfie buddies and we target snows and this year we were breasting them out head and wing attach, I’m like, I think you all have changed this rule now and they had no idea and they were not able to bring all their meat and it’s a meat run for them, they love to hunt, they’re very good hunters, but make no doubt about it. They’re out here targeting white geese to take home and eat, they love them and I do too as far as that goes. But they could not bring all the meat home because of that wing attached, it takes up room, it weighs too much and they try to process meat, early into the week, they get what sausage they can make, but it takes 3 or 4 days, so towards the end, it’s breast. So under the new rules now, next year, when I send them some links and send them an episode of this podcast, they’ll know that when they go from Nova Scotia, to Saskatchewan that next year they can do what, they can breast those, filet those birds put them in zip locks, freeze them and then just take them home.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, so we have a regulation that says – there’s a few different aspects to this, the changes that we brought in allow, that birds can be preserved and once they’re preserved, they no longer count towards your possession limit and the idea behind that is that by cleaning the birds and preserving them, the hunter has signaled his intent to use them and that’s our main concern. We want to make sure that any of these birds that are harvested or properly used or used for the intent that we specify in the regulations, which is primarily for human consumption, but we also want to give them the tools they need to do that. So if we allow you to keep large numbers of birds, what other tools do you need? We used to have regulations that specify that each individual bird had to be labeled, so the hunter’s name, the address, the signature, the date it was shot, the permit number, if you are one of these people who harvest, maybe upwards of 100 waterfowl and you have to transport them, it used to be that you would have to have wings attached, you were limited by the possession limit only up to a certain number and they’d all have to be individually tagged. So now we’ve made it easier by saying not only do those birds no longer count toward your possession limit, but as long as you clean those birds and preserve them, we don’t require you to have individual labels on them. You can transport, for example, a bag of frozen breast meat legally without a head or wing attached and without a label because you’ve done the steps that we’ve asked in cleaning those birds and preserving them for future use.
Ramsey Russell: Did you have any concern or were you concerned at all that – I’m scrambling for a concise example, but were you concerned in modernizing that rule that a hunter would shoot too many brown geese and claim them as white geese, if there wasn’t a wing attached? Would that be a fair example or has your data and just assume that most people are going to do right by the resource?
Jim Leafloor: Well, the new rule applies to every species. So ducks geese, anything in the regulations that you can legally harvest once you preserve it, once you clean the birds and preserve it, they no longer count toward a possession limit.
Ramsey Russell: Is there a requirement that I have to be in my domicile or if I lived in Nova Scotia or Mississippi and we’re in somewhere in one of the Canadian provinces, could I process them in my bed and breakfast or in my hotel and freeze them and prepare them for my consumption in that count?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. The only limitation we have is that hunters are able to clean their birds in the hunting area where they’re hunting directly, but they’re not allowed to preserve them there. So for example, you can’t bring a generator in a freezer to your blind, process your birds and freeze them and then continue to hunt as if those are yesterday’s birds, that sort of thing that was the – I don’t know that that’s something that’s a scenario that we’d ever see.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’d be a little extreme. But if I were an out of towner, I could take them to the local meat locker?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, if you’re in a hotel room, a tent, a trailer, campground, wherever you’re staying, any of those places is suitable for preserving your birds.
Ramsey Russell: That’s fantastic. Yeah, I mean, it’s just a good common sense modern day rule.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. And one of the concerns early on when we started talking about this was maybe over a decade ago, people were of the opinion that possession limits were designed to limit harvest that we needed those and in some cases, we’ve maintained the concept of possession limits so that if there is a species that’s being harvested, but we do have conservation concerns, maybe they are very low numbers –
Ramsey Russell: Such as?
Jim Leafloor: Like an eastern barrow’s goldeneye, for example, something that’s threatened or at very low levels, we don’t want hunters to target those and continuously go after them, we can still put in place a possession limit of one, so that people aren’t taking multiple birds, that sort of thing. But possession limits themselves were never really designed to limit harvest because we also had rules that allowed hunters to continuously give those birds away. So, what we’ve done here is provide them with the tools they need so that they don’t have to give their birds away in order to continue hunting themselves.
Ramsey Russell: They can consume them themselves. A lot of us love to eat duck and geese. You were telling me before the interview, you’ve got a hobby almost it sounded like to me in making sausage and processing game. How did you get into that?
Jim Leafloor: Well, I spent a lot of time, when I first moved back to Winnipeg, Winnipeg is blessed with an abundance of Canada geese and I took full advantage when I was first here, we have a lot of hunting opportunities and after a while I was hunting with a lot of people who didn’t hunt very often and they didn’t really want to take home a whole pile of birds. So they would ask me, well, can I leave these with you? And after a while you run into a problem of how do you manage all this meat? You need to use it, you need to move it, you have to give it away and one of the things that made that a lot easier is if you process game into everyday snacks that people enjoy, whether it’s a garlic sausage or jerky or some kind of processed game that’s very easy for people to cook and use they appreciated that and it was no problem to give away that type of meat. I mean, I used to be a meat cutter too a long time ago, so it was kind of a natural extension, I guess. But, yeah, that’s something I still enjoy doing today.
Recipes & Methods of Cooking Waterfowl
But I’ll make sausage during the fall, I like being out on a nice fall day with wood smoke and yeah, it’s a nice way to spend time, if you’re not hunting.
Ramsey Russell: Are your sausage, your processing recipes, your sausage recipes, I’m assuming you make meat sticks, are they your recipes? Did you do design and make these recipes?
Jim Leafloor: A couple of them. But there are all kinds of recipes online these days, there are a lot of things, I’m still early in my career, I guess as a game processor, so I’m still trying different recipes for a lot of things. But once I find one I like and the other people, like, then I usually stick with it.
Ramsey Russell: I walked into a hunting store a few weeks ago and there was an aisle, I mean, a 20ft or 30ft long aisle of nothing but sausage seasoning, unbelievable. Name one, make one up, it’s there and you take it home and make it yourself and boom, there you go.
Jim Leafloor: Very easy, yeah. I mean, there’s companies now that provide supplies for butcher shops and the same supplies that they sell that you’re buying every day in the grocery store you can apply to game processing as well. So, it’s pretty easy to make a good product.
Ramsey Russell: Is it very complicated and time consuming to make a sausage? I’ve never made sausage. I grind it –
Jim Leafloor: It can be.
Ramsey Russell: I got a grinder, I got a caser, it’s ground, I season it, I case it and then what, dry it or smoke it?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, if you’re making a smoked sausage, you want to make sure that it’s cured, so as well as seasoning, you also have a cure and then you put it in a smoker and bring it up to temperature to make sure that it’s properly cooked and all the bad bacteria is gone, so there’s no risk. Otherwise you can make fresh sausage, that’s a little simpler. But it all takes time and you have to clean your equipment when you’re done and takes time. I have a room in my house just for this, I mean, just remodeled our basement and that was one of the things I had to put in because my wife is tired of me cluttering up her kitchen a lot of times.
Ramsey Russell: Jim’s processing room. Now, is that a winter time hobby? Is that when you find yourself, when it’s freezing cold out there, is that when you find yourself making sausage?
Jim Leafloor: Pretty much year round actually. So we spend the fall putting the meat in the freezer and then it’s available to be processed at any time as long as it doesn’t stack up too much. But I’ll make sausage during the fall, I like being out on a nice fall day with wood smoke and yeah, it’s a nice way to spend time, if you’re not hunting.
Ramsey Russell: It’s a good use for a lot of waterfowl. Everybody likes it, you come up with a recipe and somebody’s going to like it. You know what I’m saying? And it’s been my experience that, a lot of the locals in Canada don’t want you to back up the driveway and say, here’s 20 geese have fun, thank you, nobody wants that.
Jim Leafloor: Especially if they have the feathers on and the guts in.
Ramsey Russell: A lot of people I’ve met over the years do want cleaned meat that they can then go cook how they want to. But I’ve never met anybody that wouldn’t take packs of sausage or meat stick. They love it, the jerky, I have had some incredible jerky out here and I would have told you, probably about two weeks ago, I don’t like goose jerky, I just hadn’t had the right goose jerky. I’ve had some dynamite, goose jerky out here, very good, it’s a very good way to eat it other than just laboring over a stove to cook waterfowl.
Jim Leafloor: You’ll have to remind me when you come back next time to have some ready for you because I would like to get your opinion on where I stack up.
Ramsey Russell: I guarantee I will, now back on the modernization rules. No possession limit in my domicile or in my hotel room, I clean my birds, I process them, they’re frozen, they’re ready for consumption, we’ve taken care of that, tagging requirements, did we mention tagging requirements, are there tagging requirements?
Jim Leafloor: Once the birds are preserved, they no longer require a tag. So the only time we require the birds to be tagged is when they’re fresh, essentially before they’re preserved, before they’re cleaned and preserved, they still have to be labeled, but we’ve also made some changes to the labeling requirement itself used to be for every individual bird. Now, we allow like a bulk labeling, so for example, if you in Manitoba, the limit for snow geese is 50 a day, I mean, if you happen to shoot 50 snow geese, you take them to a plucker and you leave them at his facility, those birds have to be labeled because they haven’t been cleaned and preserved. But instead of having to fill out 50 individual labels, you can do a bulk label with your name, address, permit number, signature date taken and just a description of the contents essentially of the package if they’re in a box or a bin or – yeah, you can just label them as 50 snow geese taken this date by this hunter address and permit number.
Ramsey Russell: Does Canada have a processing facility requirement? Like, in other words, if I drop my 50 geese, I’ve got my strap tag, Ramsey Russell, 50 snow geese. Does he then have to somehow process, does he have a requirement about the number of birds coming through that are in his possession beyond my tag? I didn’t mean to put you on the spot like that, but I’m just trying to think – I’m trying to compare Canada to the United States.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, I don’t think there is that requirement as long as the individual groups of birds are labeled, so that you can say those birds belong to this person that tag is associated with that group of birds, then you’re fine.
Ramsey Russell: What other changes were made?
Jim Leafloor: Trying to think here. We introduced a charity permit. So, some wildlife organizations like to host game dinners and in some cases they do that to raise money for conservation and that type of thing, so we made that a little easier. What else? Quite a few changes here and I’m drawing a blank.
Ramsey Russell: That’s okay. You were mentioning some of the indigenous people, what changes affected them?
Jim Leafloor: Well, indigenous people are not required to have a migratory game bird hunting permit, they have harvesting rights under our constitution. So, the earlier regulations were not clear about that, these regulations explicitly recognize those rights and that those rights apply to first nations Inuit people as well as Métis people in Canada.
What Has Been the Response to the Modernization Rule Changes?
And now that the law is in place again, nothing but positive reviews and I think the biggest challenge here is that there are still some people who don’t know that these regulations have changed and a lot of ways, at least for our most active hunters, all these regulations are designed to make their life easier and to make it easier to use those birds that they harvest.
Ramsey Russell: I think the modernization rule is fantastic, Jim, I’m very excited, we talked about it last year and it made my head swim, it’s just common sense, modern day laws, to anybody listening, if you don’t know otherwise, that’s how the law is up here. When you put those birds in your ice chest and you want to go back home to Mississippi, Texas, wherever you are, you got to follow the US laws which are vastly different. The head of wing must be attached, the birds must be tagged, it’s complicated, possession limits apply. Maybe one day US Fish and Wildlife will say, hey, if I want to put market hunting into obscurity, I’m going to make a law against selling your wild game, maybe we’ll modernize too and catch up. How did the Canadian hunters respond to this rule? The ones that know about it, not my newfie buddies, but the ones that actually know about it. What had been the response so far?
Jim Leafloor: Well, I think we got a very positive response from the time the draft regulations were put out for public comment, I think it was 100% positive feedback for those changes in particular. And now that the law is in place again, nothing but positive reviews and I think the biggest challenge here is that there are still some people who don’t know that these regulations have changed and a lot of ways, at least for our most active hunters, all these regulations are designed to make their life easier and to make it easier to use those birds that they harvest. So, I would guess that the majority of our most active hunters know about the changes.
Ramsey Russell: When you told me about this proposed legislation last year, I’ve been thinking about it all year, it seems to me to be very pro hunter. Was that’s some of the intent in this ruling was to encourage hunting, to encourage hunters make use of this wild resource. Is that some of the intent or all the intent with regard to migratory bird modernization laws?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, I don’t know that it was an explicit intent to increase the number of hunters, for example, but it certainly made things easier for those people who have an interest in hunting. I don’t know that that was entirely our objective was to increase the number of hunters based on these rules because we always – in my opinion, at least we’ve always had fairly attractive rules for hunting, migratory birds in Canada. We have lots of opportunities and fairly liberal limits and long seasons, so opportunity is not really a problem.
Why are Hunters Important to Waterfowl Management in The Modern Era?
And the information we get from those surveys and from those band recoveries is a large part of the basis for managing waterfowl hunting and waterfowl populations.
Ramsey Russell: Why? Because I still say it’s a very hunter friendly legislation which tells me that to you all, hunters are an important part of the conservation equation. Why are hunters important to waterfowl management in the modern era?
Jim Leafloor: Well, a couple of different reasons that come to mind. One is, we rely on hunters a lot for information. In our own monitoring programs, we do a lot of waterfowl banding hunters are the people who report the vast majority of that banding information which is critical to managing the harvest. They also answer our questions, we send out questionnaires and ask them, how many birds did you harvest? What kind of birds did you harvest? Can you send us the tails and wings of all the birds you harvested and hunters have been very good about providing us with that information. And the information we get from those surveys and from those band recoveries is a large part of the basis for managing waterfowl hunting and waterfowl populations. So from that perspective, they’re very helpful. They’re also people who are passionate about the animals that we’re responsible for managing and they’re willing to spend their own money oftentimes in support of conservation efforts, whether it’s through going to dinners to raise money for conservation or just pitching in to help with projects to improve wetlands and that sort of thing, put up wood duck nest boxes, all kinds of stuff that they do. And I guess, the final thing I’d say is that, part of our mandate in the Canadian Wildlife Service is to provide hunting opportunities for people.
Ramsey Russell: That is a mandate.
Jim Leafloor: That’s part of our job. And the way we do that is through our regulations, we open hunting seasons, we make access available to hunters to harvest waterfowl. And in order to keep those opportunities coming, we have to make sure that that harvest is sustainable. So hunters to us as a biologist, those are our clients, almost a constituency that we cater to, we’re answerable to them. So it’s important to have those people to get support for the programs that ensure that waterfowl populations are conserved. And if you look at, there have been some reports recently, the status of the birds in Canada, the status of the birds in North America and you look at the different groups of birds, water birds, shorebirds, waterfowl, land birds, all these different bird groups, waterfowl come out on top, waterfowl have been increasing, waterfowl are doing very well by in large, whereas you have other groups of birds that are not doing nearly as well and I think part of the difference at least is that waterfowl are managed for hunting, we have strong monitoring programs, we have strong regulations to make sure that they’re not over harvested and we have constituents who spend their money actively on conservation programs that benefit waterfowl. So all those things combined have been good for a waterfowl, whereas other groups of birds have not fared nearly as well.
Ramsey Russell: Hunters are very passionate, waterfowl hunters are very passionate. We don’t want to see a single bird hopping around the bush and say check, there’s my bird, we want to see them obliterate the sky and we’re going to put our time and our money wherever we can to accomplish that and you all recognize, that’s why hunters are important. Because you go do all this leg banding and we’re going to talk about that in a minute to get harvest data and without the citizen scientist, the hunter, what good are they?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Well, one of the things that’s really brought citizen science to the fore is the way that we currently monitor Arctic nesting geese in Canada, almost all of our Arctic nesting goose populations are so large and so remote often that we can’t use things like the standard aerial surveys to count them to figure out what kind of, how are they doing? How many are there? Is the population going up or going down? So we tend to rely for all of the Arctic geese that go through the prairies for example, we rely on harvest data and band recovery data to estimate population size. So just those two streams of information which are largely supplied by hunters, give us all the information we need to manage each of these large populations of geese. So midcontinent snow geese, something that’s somewhere above 7 million birds. Ross’s geese, midcontinent white fronts, midcontinent cackling geese, all of those populations are primarily monitored through harvest surveys and banding and that provides us with very strong information about not only how many geese are there in each of those populations, but as the population going up and down, what proportion of the population is being taken every year? What’s the harvest rate, in other words and we can estimate annual survival rates. Is survival high? Is it low? Is it going up? Is it going down? We can answer a lot of questions from information that’s largely provided by hunters.
Ramsey Russell: As a Canadian hunter yourself, as a member of Canadian wildlife service, hunters are important, I get it, do you include non-residents in that equation? What are some of the values or distractions of non-resident tourist hunters coming up here to your country?
Jim Leafloor: I would say that non-resident hunters are very important to us, there’s a couple of things that come to mind. First off, waterfowl management in general is a cooperative endeavor between the governments in Canada and the governments in the US through the Flyway system, we have a well-integrated management scheme in North America, so we’re all in it together. And we get a lot of money in Canada to support our monitoring programs from state and federal agencies in the US, that’s part of the recognition that this is not just a Canada thing, it’s a Canada, US thing, it’s a cooperative venture and hunters in both countries are important to the whole business of waterfowl management, they’re our constituency, they’re actively engaged, they’re providing us with information and they’re spending their money on conservation. So yeah, all in together and it’s an international cooperative venture.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, we’re having to manage these birds from the Artic cleared down to the gulf coast and it builds that constituency, use the word constituency and I think that’s very important. Issues going on in Australia, issues going on in Argentina, issues going on in places that lack a relevant duck hunting culture, it imperils sport hunting, which then in peril the citizen science or to give a damn about this wildlife resource, the habitat conservation or any other component. So that is important, isn’t it?
Jim Leafloor: Well, a guy who used to work with, used to say waterfowl are the same as any other migratory bird, they’re subject to all the same pressures, loss of habitat, increases in predator populations can be dangerous, invasive species, all of these things, pollution, climate change, all of these things that affect any other migratory bird population also affect waterfowl populations. And in addition to that, we harvest them, we hunt them every year, we harvest millions of them and that’s sustainable as long as the population is properly monitored and managed. So, yeah, just part of the big picture.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, the band recoveries are very important, it’s not just something pretty to hang on to your lanyard, that’s you all finger on the pulse of that harvest you’re talking about.
Jim Leafloor: So, one of the things, going back to the word constituency is, right now, I don’t know what the number is in terms of how many waterfowl hunters we have in North America, I think it’s what’s upwards of a million, 1.3 million, 1.4 million maybe and that’s just permanent hunters that doesn’t include indigenous harvesters. But those people, you wonder would waterfowl be in the same circumstances they are, waterfowl in general are doing very well. Would they be in the same condition without that constituency and without that support, without the monitoring programs, without the regulation of harvest? If we didn’t have hunters, where would we be with waterfowl? And I don’t know the answer to that question, but I have to believe that without the passion and involvement of hunters that we would not be as well off today as we are.
Canada’s Liberal Bag Limits
8 mallards, not 4, not 5, not 2, last year on the Atlantic Flyway. 8 pintails, not 1 like, just south here in the United States, why?
Ramsey Russell: I agree. I agree wholeheartedly. I want to revisit this topic, we talked about it some last year and I want to revisit this topic because we’re talking about hunters, we’re talking about citizen science, we’re talking about banding that leads me to Canada has liberal bag limits relative to the United States. 8 mallards, not 4, not 5, not 2, last year on the Atlantic Flyway. 8 pintails, not 1 like, just south here in the United States, why? How is that possible? I know there’s a reason we talked about last year but I want to revisit that because I think it’s a great topic.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of different factors, I mean, there are big differences in the hunting community in the Canada and the US, we have far fewer hunters in this country than we have in the US, our harvest is much different. If you look at duck harvest numbers in Canada, the majority of our harvest of ducks, for example, is juvenile birds young of the year, so why is that important? Because young of the year naturally have lower survival than adult birds, so the impact of harvest, when you’re taking primarily young birds, it’s more likely that a lot of those birds would have not have survived their first year anyway, they have higher vulnerability to a number of things that adult birds don’t necessarily have. So Canada’s footprint in terms of harvest is much smaller than in the US where you have a larger number of hunters. And so managing harvest in the United States is more complicated because you’re harvesting the same populations that we are, but you have 10 times as many hunters. So that’s one of the things that you have to take into account. The other is that, we’ve looked at data from things like pintails and we’ve evaluated, what was the effect of us cutting our bag limit in half? We did that for 20 years, did that actually have any effect? And what we saw was that harvest rates really didn’t change and in fact, we actually saw harvest rates increase at the lower bag limits, which tells us that, okay, it’s not the regulation that’s controlling harvest rates, it’s something else and these are miniscule changes in harvest. I mean, pintails overall are harvested at a very low level, hunting I would say is not a driving factor for pintail populations based on what we see, something like 4%, maybe 5% of the population is harvested in the given year. So, this is not something that’s likely to drive pintail populations up or down on its own.
Ramsey Russell: I think you mentioned one time last year that when you all way back when you cut the bag limit of to 4, you lost a lot of hunters.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, it’s hard to say whether the cut in bag limit is really responsible for that, we’ve lost a lot of hunters in Canada over the last 45 years or so, I think our hunter numbers peaked in 1978 and since that time, we’ve lost probably about 75% of our waterfowl hunters across the country. And there’s –
Ramsey Russell: Probably the same in the States too, I don’t know, but I would guess that a lot.
Jim Leafloor: I don’t think the decline in hunter numbers has been nearly as pronounced in the US, it’s a much higher loss rate in Canada in fact. And I wouldn’t say that that’s because of cuts to the bag limits because we’ve actually had pretty liberal hunting regulations in Canada compared to the US during much of that time. But there may be other factors involved and I think there have been a number of studies about that, for some people, it’s access to hunting locations, for other people, there’s a cost factor and more and more we’re seeing and hearing about just other things for people to do, like, people spend their time different ways and in some respects, we’ve become a much more urban population as opposed to rural, so you don’t have that same mentoring hunting community in a lot of cases that we used to have, some of that tradition, that culture has been lost just because of changes in the population itself. So yeah, I wouldn’t say that we lost our hunters because of cuts to the bag limit because even when we’ve brought back the regulations or increased bag limits, we haven’t seen corresponding increases in hunter numbers. So obviously, I think other factors are involved.
Ramsey Russell: There are some people out there that think that 8 mallards, 8 pintails, it’s hurting the overall population of ducks, you all got data that proves otherwise, is that right? Your harvest data is showing, you can scientifically demonstrate it’s viable, it’s sustainable 8 mallards, 8 pintails in Canada.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. I mean, when we look at – one of the things we have or we’re lucky to have as a long term record of the monitoring that we’ve done, so we’ve been banding ducks for a long time. So we can go back and look at harvest rates of mallards in the 1960s and compare them to harvest rates of mallards today in Prairie Canada, for example, we’ve done this and we see that even with lower bag limits and more hunters back in the 60s, we had much higher harvest rates than what we have today. So with the number of hunters we have now, we can have much more liberal bag limits and have less impact in terms of our take on how many birds are removed from the population.
Ramsey Russell: Since the 1960s, there’s a proliferation of outfitters, I’m guessing there’s way more outfitters in Prairie Canada than there were back in the 60s, I have no idea, I’m just guessing, the advent of technology such as spinners, other, what we got? Maybe more efficient shotguns, maybe more efficient camouflage, maybe more efficient or certainly newer gimmicky decoys out here on. But yet the harvest data shows that fewer ducks are being harvested now than back in the 60s and harvest data doesn’t differentiate. It doesn’t matter if it’s a non-resident hunter, a guided hunter, a freelance hunter or a local hunter harvest is harvest.
Jim Leafloor: Harvest is harvest. Indigenous hunters have always been a part of that landscape as well and we’re not necessarily monitoring what those indigenous harvesters are taking, but we do know that from those indigenous harvesters do contribute information in terms of band recoveries as well, so they’re actually part of the monitoring system, so we do have their inputs and we’re confident that what we’re seeing is accurate.
Ramsey Russell: That’s great. So for those coming to Canada, there’s no, next year will probably be 8 mallards, 8 pintails, 5 Canada geese in Manitoba –
Jim Leafloor: In the prairie region, yeah. We have a harvest strategy for mallards in particular in the prairies and that document describes our approach to managing harvests in the 3 Prairie provinces. And it’s aimed at ensuring stable regulations and that we really see no need to reduce bag limits unless we get into a circumstance where harvest rates are much higher than they are today and or duck populations are much lower than what we have today. And we have 60 or 70 years of monitoring data to tell us when we’re approaching those extremes. So everything is in place, we have liberal regulations and harvest rates remain very low and we’re confident that those regulations can be maintained and that hunting will remain viable for a long time.
Goose & Duck Hunting in Manitoba
And we’ve seen that, just from talking to hunters and visiting with people that have been out tremendous numbers of juvenile birds, heavy populations of ducks, everybody seems to be very happy with conditions in Manitoba so far.
Ramsey Russell: You talk about the populations contracting, well, I tell you what, getting into Western Manitoba, clear over to the Alberta border, it is dry, dry as any desert I’ve ever set foot in. There were cracks out in some of those fields, Jim, I was scared that Char dog would fall off into and break a leg or I’d drop a cell phone and it bounce off of China, I’ve never seen it that dry. And I can tell you between Saskatoon and Southwest to a part, I did not see a drop of water, it’s dry, but it wasn’t dry here in Manitoba, was it?
Jim Leafloor: No, we’ve actually had a pretty good year of it, we noticed right from the start, when we started doing our duck survey this spring, the guys in Alberta told us how dry it was, the guys in Western Saskatchewan said it’s really dry, at least up until they got into the Parklands, they found a little more permanent water there. So it’s not so bad as the southern regions of the province. But in Manitoba, we actually had improved conditions over I think what we saw in 2019 even, so we had been in a pattern, where the number of ponds have been declining for probably 6 or 7 years. But this year we saw a bounce back in Manitoba, we had tons of snow last winter, lots of rain this spring and conditions here were very good. And we’ve seen that, just from talking to hunters and visiting with people that have been out tremendous numbers of juvenile birds, heavy populations of ducks, everybody seems to be very happy with conditions in Manitoba so far.
Ramsey Russell: Manitoba is amazing this year. Some of the parts I’ve seen over here, reminded me of home soybean, section of soybeans with some unplanted areas because it was so wet when they planted late, they just had to go around it, make the crop. And I mean that’s wet.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. One of the places where I hunt occasionally big grass marsh in Manitoba is kind of a terminal basin where a lot of runoff flows into and that marsh flooded extensively or all around the edges and some of the locals there said that they hadn’t seen wet conditions like that in their lifetime. So there have been some very wet areas and it seems like the ducks have responded and done very well where the water exists.
Ramsey Russell: As dry as it was in Saskatchewan and Alberta, I’m sure some of you all counts were lower than in the past, but not too low, not at that critical level yet that you all were looking for.
Jim Leafloor: No, the duck numbers haven’t reached the lowest levels that we’ve seen in the past, so we’re still in our world view, I guess we’re still operating within normal bounds and duck numbers are still reasonable overall.
Ramsey Russell: Somebody told me even that the mallard numbers today, even though there’s a growing perception that there’s way less, are not as dire as they were back even in the 80s.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, I think our lowest estimates for mallards were 1985 or 1986. So the last time that we had a really serious drought in the Prairies, I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head, what that level was, but it was, I believe several million mallards fewer than what we currently see.
Ramsey Russell: What will it take for some of that real dry area, what will it take for parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan to rebound to get back wet again, how much snow will it take?
Jim Leafloor: I couldn’t say how much snow, but we’re already hearing in Alberta, I was there a few days ago in Edmonton actually and I heard on the radio while I was driving around that, they’re expecting not very much snow this winter and continuing drought. So I don’t think that news is going to be good in Alberta next spring. I don’t know, I haven’t heard those kind of predictions elsewhere but I guess we’ll wait and see.
Ramsey Russell: Excuse me, now, this is going to sound farmers almanac, excuse me. But I talked to a farmer that had apparently been studying solar flares for a long time, I had to ask Siri what a solar flare was and he predicts that the drought is going to last into 2025, that’s pretty, that’s away from now, I hope he’s wrong.
Jim Leafloor: Well, I mean, that’s one of the predictions that the scientists are making, if climate change is happening, then we should expect more frequent drought and more severe drought, these are the kind of predictions that scientists are making. That doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a severe and longer drought everywhere because what we see is that there is some variation in how that drought displays itself across the landscape.
Ramsey Russell: Manitoba is an exception for example, but I tell you in the United States practically from Maryland, clear out to California, it’s dry, from Minnesota, clear down to Mississippi, it’s dry and the further west you get the drier, it gets.
Jim Leafloor: Definitely a concern. I mean, and drought in the winter can be just as bad as drought in the spring on the prairie. So, you have to think about the landscape for ducks or geese year round, wetland conditions in the winter are just as important sometimes as wetland conditions in the spring.
Changing Habitat Conditions for Pintails
Pintails face a perilous decline due to alterations in their natural habitats, such as loss of wetlands and degradation of breeding grounds.
Ramsey Russell: Somebody told me about an interesting theory and I’m going to ask you about it because you would know as well as anybody, that in the absence of trapping because fur is unfashionable, nobody’s trapping up in the boreal forest, beavers are proliferate, they’re building a little beaver pond and that people hypothesized that there’s a transition of species that may have traditionally nested in the prairie in dry years like this will begin to nest up in the boreal forest, not in the big deep fishing ponds but in a little beaver pond. Do you think there could be a modicum of truth or have you all seen anything like that in some of your surveys or -?
Jim Leafloor: I mean, there’s fairly well known response by species like pintails for example, when it’s dry on the prairies, they tend to overfly.
Ramsey Russell: Fly to Alaska.
Jim Leafloor: But yeah, we see them in the Arctic all over every year, I mean, whether there’s a drought or not, a lot of male pintails go to the Arctic in the summer, they’re molting up there. But whether or not they’re moving into boreal regions to nest, I can’t say that we have seen that. But again, these climate change predictions will say that, conditions that exist today, for example, in the Dakotas will soon exist in Southern Manitoba. So longer growing seasons and warmer temperatures and all of these habitats will slowly shift northward. This is going to be over a long, longer timeline, but we will see changes that result probably in changes in waterfowl distribution over time. But I wouldn’t say that we have or at least I’m not aware of any analyses that have shown that.
Ramsey Russell: You said earlier that harvest wasn’t a driving factor of pintails for the record, what are your beliefs after all these years of research? Why do pintails seem to be in such perilous decline?
Jim Leafloor: I think, one of the leading theories these days is that pintails, they’re a bird that nests in sparse habitat, they need water, so it has to be wet, they’re very responsive to wet conditions and they avoid dry areas. And one of the changes that we’ve seen in agriculture on the prairies is we used to have a lot of land that was fallowed, so in a given year, farmers would rest pieces of land where they didn’t grow a crop and there’d be a vegetation spring up in those fields, a lot of weeds, a lot of cover and pintails and other species of ducks were actively using these fallowed fields to nest in. And before those areas were worked up, they were often able to get a brood off and now we see much more intensive farming, so there’s no fallow fields anymore, every field is cropped virtually every year unless it’s flooded or something else. So, the thinking is that a lot of those sparse covered fallow areas are no longer available to pintail or at least this is one of the theories. So, yeah, I don’t know that I’ve heard of it better explanation.
Ramsey Russell: That makes sense to me, I’ve always heard that – I’ve read some research from way back when that, there were traditionally short rest prairie nesters, the advent of no teal farming, they begin to nesting it and maybe they can get a fly off but their eggs can’t.
Jim Leafloor: That’s the other part of that equation. Yeah, because they like sparse cover, they’re attracted to some of these stubble fields that are.
Ramsey Russell: And even if it is early enough that they can’t go back and renest, it’s a smaller clutch with less chance of survivability.
Jim Leafloor: And you need water, that’s one of the reasons why things look so good in Manitoba this year with all the water is that, renesting effort is much greater when you have wet years. So I’ve actually heard a couple of accounts of very late birds that can’t even fly in October. So that tells you that at least some females continued with their nesting efforts well into the breeding season this year.
Ramsey Russell: Last question I got for you, Jim, last year you were telling me about Manitoba had initiated a spring Canada goose season, how’s that going?
Jim Leafloor: I think it’s going pretty well. We’re hoping that there will be increased uptake over time, but when conditions are right in the spring and we have an early melt and the Canada geese come back, we’re hearing good things from hunters who are taking advantage.
Ramsey Russell: But you’re not just targeting Canada geese because you all know you all got a lot of Churchills, a lot of baffins, a lot of different populations of birds that come migrate through Manitoba. What was that spring season designed for?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, it’s a good point. Canada geese are a species that, we don’t manage them quite in the same way as we manage other things. We have a tendency or have had a tendency to divide them up into separate populations. So spring hunting seasons are, they’re not actually a hunting season, they’re called a conservation harvest, they target populations that are considered overabundant and in order to be considered overabundant, you have to demonstrate that that population because of its rate of increase or because of its size is causing damage to something of value, whether that be crop land or anything of value that this large population size tends to cause problems for. And the case was made in southern Manitoba that Canada geese have been increasing for 50 or 60 years, they continued to increase and that there are impacts associated with those large populations. We see more and more crop damage in spring from Canada geese foraging in areas where crops are actively growing, we documented increased automobile accidents involving Canada geese just being hit on the roads in Winnipeg, for example, every spring. We see Canada geese on the roadways and getting clipped by cars, so more and more damage related to that, the more geese there are, the more traffic there is, the more accidents you tend to get and it’s not just in Winnipeg, we see this across Southern Manitoba. So these are just indicators that the population is continuing to grow and is extremely large and it qualifies as an overabundant population because of that. And we’ve opened a harvest in the spring to try and control the growth of that population.
Ramsey Russell: Is that conservation season set to target more of a resident bird and prevent or protect your migraters coming through?
Jim Leafloor: Exactly. Because of the way we manage Canada geese by populations and cackling geese are, it’s a separate species, but cackling geese look a lot like Canada’s, they’re much smaller, they nest in the Arctic, they’re actually quite different from Canada geese, but the overabundance, the conservation harvest is directed only at those geese that nest in southern Manitoba. So in order to make sure that we’re not harvesting birds from other more northern nesting areas, we have to time the season to make sure that we don’t overlap with the periods of migration for those other populations. So that involved actually a number of years of study, we attached geo locators to cackling geese in the Arctic to Subarctic nesting Canada geese around Churchill and Canada geese and southern Manitoba to find out when each of those groups of birds return to the province in spring. And what we found out was that southern nesting Canada geese tended to be the first to return. They started in some years, as early as February, often during the month of March and into the first half of April or so before we started to see the return of birds from nesting areas farther north. So, the Canada geese from the Churchill area, for example, followed sometime after mid-April and then the cackling geese even after that. So we’re able to target our regulations to a specific component of the population that’s deemed to be overabundant.
Ramsey Russell: There’s got to be some pretty exciting public participation, I would think, I mean, that’s a great opportunity.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, it varies year to year. If we have a late spring and there’s a lot of winter type weather, then you don’t get a lot of participation. But when it’s a nice early spring and things open up and the geese return, then we’ve had pretty good uptake by hunters, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Talking to some of my local buddies, it’s like hunting a new critter because their hunting tactics in the fall versus then are totally different, there’s still a lot of ice. A lot of these big lake are frozen so they can’t really go pinpoint them and pin them down into a feed coming off the water and getting to fly away, it’s just a new game they’re figuring out.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. In a lot of cases of – you’re talking about smaller groups of birds more widely scattered, maybe looking for open water more so than, the big concentrations of food.
Ramsey Russell: How cold is it here when that season’s open?
Jim Leafloor: It could be so cold you don’t want to be out there or it could be well above zero, I mean, it could be very comfortable. It’s just depends on the year.
Ramsey Russell: Jim, thank you very much. Is there any parting shots?
Jim Leafloor: My pleasure. I’d be happy to do it again any time.
Ramsey Russell: Yes, sir, thank you very much. Folks, you all been listening to Mr. Jim Leafloor, Head of Aquatic Unit for Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian Wildlife Service, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, see you next time.