Atlantic Flyway mallard and Canada goose limits have doubled for the upcoming season! But why? US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Atlantic Flyway Representative, Patrick Devers, explains this and much more. Sprawling civilization and a broad array of species complicates waterfowl management in the Atlantic Flyway. In discussing issues and strategies, we fall headlong into topics involving differing adaptive harvest management models applied among US flyways, old world mallard genetic influences, black ducks, swans, brant, and eiders. Interesting episode for sure, and you might even learn a thing or three.

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Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. News flash, if you hadn’t heard it yet, the Atlantic Flyway doubled the mattered limit, we’ve gone from 2 to 4 and doubled the Canada goose bag limit from 1 to 2. The Atlantic Flyway is complicated. On the one hand, it is the absolute bastion of American civilization, Chesapeake Bay, all up and down the eastern shore. That’s where American waterfowling started. But what a daunting task to manage that flyaway, because it’s complicated. It now represents a huge footprint of civilization. And along with that comes a very, to my opinion, daunting task of trying to manage our nation’s waterfowl on the Atlantic Flyway. Joining me to make sense of it all is Patrick Devers, US Fish & Wildlife Service Atlantic Flyway representative. He’s the guy. Patrick, how are you today?

Patrick Devers: I’m doing well. Thank you for having me today.

Ramsey Russell: Well, thanks very much for joining me. For those you all listening, I’ll tell you how I bumped into and met Patrick was at the Eastern Waterfowl festival. I was introduced by a mutual friend. And so you all got to figure, if I meet somebody, if you meet anybody at Eastern Waterfowl festival. They got to be a duck hunter. Patrick, do you identify as a duck hunter?

Patrick Devers: I do, I try. I can’t say I’m the best duck hunter in the country, but I certainly try to do my part.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. How did you get involved? Where are you from? Where’d you grow up? And how did you get into duck hunting?

Patrick Devers: Yeah, so I’m from Colorado. I was raised in Colorado, just outside Denver and suburb of Aurora. Had a great time. I absolutely love Colorado. And as a kid, I spend a lot of time outdoors. I always love being outdoors and just running around with my friends, things like that and always had a passion for science and wild animals. However, I might not be that as traditional of a waterfowl biologist as you might think. I didn’t grow up in a hunting or outdoors family really, at all. So it was just me being outside, running around kind of at that time with prairies of Colorado and I just enjoyed being out there and like I said, loved animals, just wild animals, any kind of, didn’t matter what it was, if it was brown eyed and furry on fur legs or if it was hopping through the little creeks, whatever. I was always interested in it.

Ramsey Russell: Go ahead. No, I was going to say, well, how did you make the transition from being a little boy loving outside like we all did, to actually becoming a hunter?

Patrick Devers: Yeah. So that was when I was in college, actually. I mean, so I always had a little interest, I guess, in hunting, but I wasn’t exposed to it. And so I ended up at Colorado State University, majoring in wildlife biology with a range minor. And of course, there I met a great deal of hunters. And more importantly, in my education, started learning about the history of hunting and the role hunters of played in wildlife and natural resources conservation in this country or North America, even more broadly. And so I just became really enamored, I guess and attracted to that history of hunters early on fighting for conservation and pushing for conservation efforts and taxes on hunting equipment to pay for wildlife conservation. All that effort that really went into restoring wild populations, elk and deer, turkey, ducks. The whole thing, I think, is just an incredible conservation legacy. And so just with my interest in being outdoors and with wild animals and some interest already in hunting, being around other wildlife students, they offered to take me out. And I started in that way mostly with pronghorn and deer in Colorado and then a little bit with a waterfowl. And then just as I continued on through my education and moving around, duck hunted as much as I could where I could and then really start to pick it up as I got into where I got here in Maryland, actually. I do most of my hunting a lot of times when I’m traveling and visiting colleagues and I get out with them. That’s how I do a lot of my hunting, but more and more trying to get out of my own around here. And that’s kind of my short history in duck hunting. So, like I said, it might not be the traditional way I ended up in duck hunting. I do identify as duck hunter and I’m always looking forward to getting out and doing more of it.

Ramsey Russell: I didn’t start duck hunting, really until I was in college either. I mean and that’s when I got hooked big. I mean I was old enough and had a little money to and dedication and time to go out and really duck hunting. Now there in Colorado state, did you waterfowl hunt at all? And if so, was it ducks or was it geese? I know there’s a lot of geese in that part of the world.

Patrick Devers: Yeah, a little field hunting for geese.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Fantastic. Do you still remember your first hunt, your first bird? I ask everybody. That always interests me.

Patrick Devers: I would have to say what sticks out to me, actually, is dove hunting. And that was mostly in Arizona. And that’s when I absolutely fell in love with probably hunting in general. It just, you had a lot of opportunity there in Arizona. Walk in the fields and you get a lot of shots off and you get a lot of birds and it was open and accessible easy to just go do and kind of the way you imagine hunting used to be. And so I would say that probably dove hunting was really the hook for me. The first duck I took was actually a black duck in the coastal marshes of New Jersey. Yeah, great opportunity. So a colleague of mine, retired colleague that maybe you’ve heard of I’ve talked to before, is Paul Castelli. He was a longtime New Jersey waterfowl biologist and really passionate about waterfowl hunting and American black ducks. And he had me up one day. I went out with him and his son and his dog. It was a perfect Atlantic coast hunting. It was a high tide in east wind, as they say. The wind was blowing in on us, the clouds were low and yeah, we set up little sneak boats and he called in just a pair of ducks, and we popped up and folded them right in front of us. Dog did a great retrieve. And that was back before we liberalized black duck season, so it’s still a 1 bird bag. So I got my 1 bird and it was just a wonderful morning.

Ramsey Russell: 1 or 2 black ducks is to now is plenty. I mean, it’s like we don’t really get the black ducks in this part of the world that I wish we did. But when I am up in your part of the world, I’ll tell anybody. I’d rather go shoot 1 black duck than 2 mallards or 2 black ducks than 4 mallards. That’s just me. I don’t know why. I guess because we don’t have them. They’re so unique and they’re so, they’re a sly little bird as compared to, they’re a little more slippery than a mallard. And so far, few between have I seen them in the state of Mississippi during my hunting career that I can, if I thought long and hard about, I could probably remember all dozen that I’ve seen in the state of Mississippi. And I can remember the one I missed. I’ll never will forget the one I missed. I got buck fever and missed him bigger in Dallas. And so talk about your career a little bit. So you’re at Colorado State University, you start developing an interest in hunting. You’re in the wildlife field already, so you’ve got a profound interest in wildlife and wildlife management. But how did you go from there? Or did you have a plan to go from there to Atlantic Flyway representative, up with the statistical gods, as I call them? I mean, how did you plot that course along the way?

Patrick Devers: Oh, I didn’t apply that course at all. It’s funny you asked that one. Yeah, my plan at that time was to probably work with mammals on the prairies. That’s where I want to be. Even in Colorado, I love being out on the short grass step as much as I did in the mountains, if not more. So that’s where I always thought I’d end up. I ended up going to University of Arizona to get my master’s degree and that was focused on a question about whether or not Arizona Game and Fish should continue trying to rest or restore desert bighorn sheep in the mountains just north of Tucson. And I remember my major advisor at the time, Paul Krausman, asking me and his other grad students where we thought we’d be in 10 years. And I said, I want to be back on the prairies of Colorado. And after we all answered, he said, in 10 years, none of you will be where you think you’ll be. It’s just, you don’t know where the road’s going to take you. And he was right. From Arizona, I did my PhD at Virginia Tech, working on population dynamics and effects of hunting on ruffed grouse in the Appalachians. So that’s when I made the switch to birds at that time from mostly mammal work prior to that. And then, yeah, after I finished my PhD, I was applying – Several states were hiring upland game bird biologists. I was applying for those that had some interviews kind of in the queue. And then I saw this great position with US Fish & Wildlife Service, division of migratory bird management and that was as the science coordinator for the black duck joint venture.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, really?

Patrick Devers: Yeah. So I thought it was a long shot. I never thought I’d actually get on with Fish & Wildlife Service, but I threw my hat in the ring and whatever happened and everything kind of came together. And yeah, I started with in that position in 2006. Yeah. So, certainly didn’t apply my path in this direction. That was a great position. I loved it. What I got to do was really work and coordinate between Fish & Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service and between the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyway to implement monitoring programs, research and management for American black ducks. And I got involved in helping to kind of finalize what is now the international black duck adaptive harvest management strategy that we use to inform harvest regulations in both countries every year.

Ramsey Russell: So black ducks are pretty special to you also?

Patrick Devers: They are, absolutely. Yeah. They’re in dear to the heart.

Ramsey Russell: I asked you before we started recording where you live now and you said, Laurel, Maryland, work at the Patuxent research. And I learned a little bit and I never will about forget back when the Internet was young and chat rooms instead of social media, somebody post up a picture of a banded duck and say, I shot a duck. It was banded in Maryland. I don’t know how it got all the way over here. Cause back in the day, they put Laurel, Maryland, on those bands. But I learned, what is Patuxent? Is it ash? Was it a refuge? Is it like an office building? What is Patuxent research lab?

Establishment and Mission: Exploring the Origins of Patuxent

Patuxent is a national wildlife refuge. It’s actually national research refuge. And so, if I recall correctly, it is the only research refuge that was established within the National Wildlife Refuge system.

Patrick Devers: Well, Patuxent is a national wildlife refuge. It’s actually national research refuge. And so, if I recall correctly, it is the only research refuge that was established within the National Wildlife Refuge system. So it has a mission of conducting research. And early in its history, I believe it was established in the 30s. So a lot of its early history was on the restoration of waterfowl, as you can imagine at that time. So how to create habitat to encourage nesting by Canada geese was a lot of their early work and just wetlands management is a lot of work they did. But then they did a whole variety of other work on nutrition of waterfowl. The effect of chemicals like DDT on a variety of wildlife, birds included, what has been conducted here, behavioral work has been conducted here. More recently, there’s pens around here for various species. They have a large sea duck pen set up where they can study sea duck behavior, feeding behavior and things like that. So it gets a little complicated here. It is a refuge, so it’s the land and some of the properties managed. Well, all the properties managed by the refuge US Fish & Wildlife Service Refuge system. Part of this refuge is closed off for our office space. But then also co located here is the US Fish & Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Program, which is the program I’m in. And then we also have what is now called the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center, which used to be called USGS Patuxent Wildlife Center. So it’s the Migratory Bird Program and the USGS that has done just this incredible history of doing great scientific work on migratory birds in particular.

Ramsey Russell: Well, migratory birds is one of the top priorities of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. Endangered and threatened migratory birds and then indigenous wildlife. So, I mean, that is kind of the crux of what you all do, isn’t it? Migratory birds, you all lay out the frameworks. The bird banding lab must be nearby, because I know, that’s kind of where all the stuff goes on with the bird banding, isn’t it?

Patrick Devers: That’s right. So they’re also here. They’re part of the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center. So they’re right across the yard from me. And yeah, you’re right. They’re the ones that manage the banding permits, that send out the bands to the banders and then they are the ones that are collecting the information, for example, from hunter harvested birds, you report your bands to them through that site and they maintain that database, incredibly large database. And then we use those data. We pull those data from them and we use those in part for setting regulations every year.

Ramsey Russell: Fantastic. Let’s transition and talk a little bit about the Atlantic Flyway. I think it’s 4 flyways in America and that’s the big one. I mean, that to me, it is. A lot of the black ducks, are there a lot of other critical species. You’ve got a wide, broad array of waterfowl species. You’ve got to manage 4 brant geese, light geese, sea ducks, black ducks. I’ve already mentioned that puddle ducks, like your mallards and stuff. You got a lot of complicating factors besides just civilization, what are a lot of your waterfowl management concerns in the Atlantic Flyway?

Patrick Devers: Yeah, I think you’ve hit on the real big ones. Let’s say right now that the top of the list that we’re wrestling with are eastern mallards. AP Canada goose. The Atlantic population of Canada geese and sea ducks are probably some of our biggest issues in terms of waterfowl. And then, in addition, that we have a pretty unique way of saying setting annual regulations, which we call the multi stock adaptive harvest management program. And so instead of being based on just one species, like mid continent mallards, we incorporate information from wood ducks, ring necked ducks, golden eyes and green winged teal.

Ramsey Russell: Okay, so I think – Let me understand. Like I’m a dummy and I’m vaguely aware that under adaptive harvest management, mallards drive a lot of the management decisions. But in the Atlantic Flyway, you all are using a broader approach. Not just single. You’re taking all of these birds into consideration. A little bit of divers and what are the specific puddlers and divers that you all are kind of using as a part of this multi species model?

Patrick Devers: Yeah, so that’s wood ducks, ring necked ducks, green winged teal and goldeneye are the 4 species that we incorporate into certain regulations. And that was a very conscious effort, particularly by the Atlantic Flyaway Council, to do that. So, as you mentioned, historically, hunting regulations in the 4 flyaways have been driven by specific adaptive harvest management framework. So the 2 middle flyways, Central and Mississippi, are driven by the oldest, the original adaptive harvest management framework or AHM, that’s mid continent. Over in the Pacific, they use western mallard AHM to set their regulations. And then we did originally, too, starting in 1997, we had the eastern mallard adaptive harvest management framework and that was used to set the general hunting season for the entire Atlantic Flyway. So the daily bag limit and the season length from Maine to Florida. And that worked pretty well until about 2010, 2015 or so, in that it accounted for the eastern mallard population separate from the mid continent, which was good. It also meant that – And that’s a lot of what we shoot here. It also meant that since those birds weren’t driven by the pond dynamics of the prairies, that our regulations might not be as variable due to dry and wet cycle in the prairies. But the one thing it failed to do is really to account for the variety of species that are harvested up and down the flyway. So, particularly in the southeast, they don’t shoot a whole lot of eastern mallards. The mallards they shoot or a lot of them are actually mid continent, particularly historically, but they shoot a lot more wood ducks and ring necked ducks and other things. They just weren’t shooting a whole lot of eastern mallards. And so there’s always something a little lacking in the eastern mallard adaptive harvest management framework and that it wasn’t fully representing the composition of the harvest in the wetland Atlantic Flyway. So that concern was always there. But eastern mallards, they were growing fast. They were doing great from the 70s through the late 90s. And then we start to notice that their populations weren’t growing. They’re starting to maybe stabilize and they started to decline. They were going on a long decline through the 2000s and that started making people nervous. What’s causing this decline? And maybe our models didn’t seem to be catching it. So there’s some concern, like, is this going to lead us to, maybe have to restrict regulations where all the other species that we harvest in the Atlantic Flyway are doing really well. And it was, again, eastern mallards weren’t really representing kind of the harvest dynamics of the flyway. So there’s a decision made that we needed to kind of retool and come up with a better way of setting regulations than Atlantic Flyway and one that finally captured this diversity of harvest up and down the flyway. So that’s kind of where we started and what motivated the development of what we now call multi stock AHM. And that replaced the eastern mallard framework.

Ramsey Russell: Multi stock AHM. Okay. Is that the same as integrated population model?

Patrick Devers: No, it’s not. Yeah. So an integrated population model is used in a lot of our AHM frameworks. And all that is it’s a way of using multiple sources of data at the same time to estimate multiple aspects of the life history.

Ramsey Russell: Same data, different algorithm, more or less.

Patrick Devers: Yeah. And you’re not doing it piecemeal and kind of putting it together after the fact. You’re kind of folding it all in and running it all at the same time.

Ramsey Russell: I saw 2 of the numbers that stick out in my mind. Regards eastern mallards are 20 years ago, there about 1.2 million mallards in the Atlantic Flyway versus year before last, maybe around 400,000 is that when or why you all – And I made, my numbers may be off. My mind’s terrible. Am I wrong? What was the low point when – the most recent low point, I know they rebounded last year, but they went from 1.2 million to what, how low did the mallard population go in Atlantic Flyway?

Patrick Devers: Right. So kind of looking at some estimates here, it looks like the highest we had was right around 1998. And then this is for all of eastern North America. So it’s including Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic provinces and the northeast states. And that kind of eyeballing, it was about 1.5 million.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Patrick Devers: And then our low point was right around 2019. And that was, I think probably 1.2 or so. I think.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Patrick Devers: But that doesn’t tell the whole story in that during that whole time frame, numbers in eastern Canada of eastern mallards continued to increase. What we saw was a decline in the northeast states. And that was really a cause of concern for a lot of the state agencies.

Ramsey Russell: What was the threshold that the mallards hit when the Atlantic Flyway mallard bag limit went from 4 to 2? What was that number?

Patrick Devers: Yeah. Right.

Ramsey Russell: And then what was the number that made it come back to 4, if I’m asking that question, right?

Interim Harvest Strategy: Sustainable Regulations

So we put that in place and at the same time, like I said, we start to retool the eastern mallard model and really interrogate the data and make sure we’re comfortable with it, explore some of these hypotheses about changing habitat conditions and weather conditions, things like that, to see if we’re finding any signals.

Patrick Devers: Yeah. I don’t remember the number, exactly. So that would have been around about 2017. And so in the northeast states, it looks like the population was down close to 500,000, so that’s in the northeast states. Remember, this is where it kind of gets confusing. And they have to really, we’ll look at the details because we can provide information on abundance at multiple spatial scales and we’ll talk about, we’ll kind of throw those all out at different times. It can get confusing if we’re not careful. So I can’t give you exact numbers off the top of my head for that. What I can tell you is that, yeah, we experienced that long declining population in the northeast states from starting around the 2000 till basically 2020 or so. And so again, that kind of ties back to, like, this population isn’t doing well. The rest of them are – we shouldn’t base our harvest regulations on one population that doesn’t represent the flyway. So when we made the switch to the multi stock AHM, you said we had some concern about the status of the eastern mallards. We also had concern, like, are our data correct? Are they giving us the right picture of how this population is doing? So we stepped back and kind of reevaluated all of our data sets, dug into them, torn apart. We basically opened up the lid on the engine there and really looked into it. And at the time, what we needed is something kind of in the short term that we could say, we’re confident this kind of bag limit and season or season length is sustainable and won’t cause, shouldn’t cause a further decline in the population if harvest is at all contributing, which there’s other hypotheses out there, changes in habitat conditions and things like that. Not to say that it was necessarily harvest alone or even in part, but so we did a kind of quick analysis and set up an interim strategy that said, look, we’re really comfortable. That says 2 birds a day for 60 days is okay, it’s sustainable and won’t cause any additional negative effects on the populations. So we put that in place and at the same time, like I said, we start to retool the eastern mallard model and really interrogate the data and make sure we’re comfortable with it, explore some of these hypotheses about changing habitat conditions and weather conditions, things like that, to see if we’re finding any signals. And developed a new eastern mallard harvest strategy. Now, it happens to be adaptive also, but it just isn’t used to set the general regulations anymore. And now that we have that in place, we feel like, given that we go out and count the number of mallards every year, we’re comfortable with the data, we’re comfortable with the models and we can adjust the regulations from year to year so that we make sure harvest is sustainable. And that means in some years, when numbers are going to be good, we can support 4 birds a day. But if numbers are low, we’re going to kind of pull back and go into a more restrictive, moderate package. That might be 2 birds a day or even 1 bird a day, if that’s really what the science is telling us to do.

Ramsey Russell: That’s kind of the whole point of the adaptive harvest management is to give managers that adaptability to respond, isn’t it?

Patrick Devers: That’s exactly right.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Patrick Devers: Yep. So, yeah. Those are the regulations coming into this season, we were able to liberalize and hopefully that’s – We can have liberal regulations for a good period of time, but if necessary, we can always dial back. So our hunter should be ready for that.

Ramsey Russell: Did the eastern mallard model ever indicate, because you hear all kinds of stuff in the rumor mill. Did it ever indicate that mallards should be closed entirely or did it give you enough comfort that, yeah, we can shoot 2, but did the model ever throw a number set up, no mallards.

Patrick Devers: No, no, we never got to that point where the number suggests that the season should be entirely closed. No, not at all.

Ramsey Russell: Good news. Because I know hunting a lot of, up in your neck of the woods, it hurt a lot of duck hunters feelings. They could only shoot 2 mallards and there seems to be an abundance at times of mallards in that part of the world and now they can shoot 4. When I met you in Eastern, I had started off kind of towards Manitoba a month before and I was sitting at a dinner table and over dinner that night, they had said that they had heard somebody had been in a meeting that the limit was going to go to 4. And I said, oh, no, that’s just rumor. No, no, that’s what we heard. And I just happened to be introduced to you in Eastern there in November and you said, yeah, we got the data. We’re good. We’re going to go up to 4 mallards. And that’s got to be exciting news for Atlantic Flyway duck hunters. I mean, mallards, I love my black ducks now, but mallards are the rock stars of duck hunting. I mean, I don’t know a duck hunter from coast to coast that doesn’t value mallards.

Patrick Devers: Yeah, that’s right. And they’re the most abundant and in our bag, I think. Yeah. So they’re there ones that you have the greatest opportunity on. So it was hard on hunters. I understand that we had to cut it back to 2 birds per day. And it’s been a communication challenge, honestly, for us to be able to explain. Look, we retooled, we really looked at the data hard and we put in a new strategy that we’re comfortable with. And some years it’s going to give us 4 birds and some years it’s not. And that’s a challenge for us to communicate to the hunters and that the state agencies are particularly the ones that have to communicate that out. And they’re really good at it. And we’ll hopefully be able to keep that up in the future if we have to make any regulatory changes. Yeah, for now, things look good and this year we get 4 birds.

Ramsey Russell: Bright news. Also, the AP Canada goose has gone from 1 to 2. And I can remember one of the first time, look, this is a long time ago. I had just gotten married and went up to hunt in Maryland during Christmas break and there was no Canada goose season. That was during, like, a moratorium on Canada goose harvest. AP Canada goose harvest what is going on with that population of Canada geese, Patrick?

Patrick Devers: Yeah, that’s a great question. So in the Atlantic Flyway, we managed 3 populations of Canada geese, one being the resident population that everybody is familiar with. But then we have 2 migratory populations, the North Atlantic population and the Atlantic population. And as you mentioned, the Atlantic population has been one of great concern over the years. So I believe it was back in 1995. I can double check my notes here that the population really experienced a real drastic decline, I think. So between, like the late 80s into 1995, it went from, like 118,000 breeding pairs down to 35,000 breeding pairs. And due to that really drastic decline, put in really restrictive regulations, pretty much, we shut down general hunting in areas and even had to close subsistence harvest of that population for several years. And that was really contentious, particularly here in the Delmarva area. Goose hunting is a big deal. And that was really hard times. I know that really hard, fell hard on the state agencies, Maryland DNR, particularly at that time. But they closed the season completely and weren’t able to fully reopen the hunting season on that population till 2005, I believe, was when it really fully came up and remember, I came on in 2006. But, yeah, so kind of, given that history, it’s really familiar to a lot of current hunters. It’s familiar to some of the current state biologists and it’s never easy to close a hunting season. It’s very difficult. And so ever since then, the Atlantic Flyaway, rightfully so, has been pretty cautious about AP geese. They rebounded or recovered really well, starting in the early 2000s around 2005 and continued to grow until about 2018. And then we start to see populations decline again. And then not only – so we’re not quite sure what was going on there. What we do know is that they experienced about at least 3 years of really poor production, I think in 2018 and 2019. I don’t think they banned it. It was one of those seasons that no goslings were banned it or very few, like a handful of them, which means that there’s virtually no production on Atlantic population there in, like, 2018 and then it was really poor in 2019 and 2020. And so they are long live –

Ramsey Russell: Where are the North Atlantic and Atlantic populations actually breed? Somewhere up around Hudson Bay or further east.

Patrick Devers: Yeah, the Atlantic population breeds up in northern Quebec with about across that Ungava Peninsula. So we think of them kind of in 2 distinct segments. There is the Hudson Bay breeding group and then there’s the Ungava Bay, up on the kind of very northeast coast of Quebec is where they breed, kind of in between that whole area, but pretty low density in the interior areas and then higher densities on the Ungava and even more there in the Hudson Bay. So, yeah, just really low productivity for those year and that’s really tough on a long lived species like geese. You got to kind of pull back on harvest. So given that recent history of having to close that season, the Atlantic Flyaway Council in particular, I think, was aggressive and being conservative on the harvest of those species. So they did restrict that harvest for, I think, at least 3 seasons, if I remember correctly. And even as the population start to rebound, we approach that cautiously. And we have a harvest strategy in place with the for AP geese and then finally this year, the population rebounded. I should say last year, the population rebounded enough that the Atlantic Flyway Council and the Service were both comfortable with liberalizing those regulations.

Ramsey Russell: That’s good news for goose hunters. I know just enough to be dangerous. But one thing I seem to understand about waterfowl management is that scientifically prescribed, regulated harvest doesn’t have a lot of bearing on population dynamics. It’s usually got more to do with other habitat factors or that root down to productivity. That’s a pretty fair assessment, isn’t it? But all managers, one of the variables that managers can control is the bag limit. The harvest.

Patrick Devers: That’s right. I don’t think in any recent time that you could say harvest itself has been a sole cause of a population declining. We can’t be sure that it doesn’t have an effect. And particularly for geese, we have reason to believe that harvest mortality is in addition to natural mortality. Doesn’t mean you can’t have it. It does have an effect there. But you’re right, changing in habitat conditions can have profound effects on populations.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, how does – go ahead, please.

Patrick Devers: Yeah, I would say one other thing that allowed us to feel comfortable liberalizing regulations on AP Canada geese is that in the new harvest strategy, we made an important change. And the way we used to do things is we take kind of a 3 year running average of the breeding population. So let’s say we calculate an average for 2019, 2021 and 2022. And we’d say that’s the population, problem with that is if a population is declining. You’re always lagging behind that decline because you have the 2 previous years that were larger. So you’re kind of over, always overestimating your population size. We have new analytical techniques that allow us to predict next year’s population size, so we’ll use data this year to predict the population size in 2024. And that’s, I think, a more robust and probably more conservative approach to managing harvest. So if you’re predicting it’s going to come down, before it comes down, you’re already backing up on harvest. And that is one reason that I think we’re comfortable with the regulations being liberalized.

Ramsey Russell: Very good. What considerations or how, what influence do Old World matter genetics have in managing waterfowl, specifically mallards in the Atlantic Flyway? Because I know it’s a very daunting subject. I mean, we’ve got – on the one hand, we’ve got wild mallards. On the other hand, we’ve got Old World European chicken like, pecking mallard like ducks out there on the landscape. And it’s got to be dawning. It’s almost like they look alike when they’re flying through the air, coming in the decoy, but they ain’t. It’s got to have some relations. In fact, I asked you when I met you, I said, I just assumed, ignorant though I am, I just assumed that the reason the bag limit had been doubled was because of the game farm genetics. But that’s not the case. But what complications or what considerations or how does having that genetic matter, like duck on the landscape effect management for mallard or other ducks?

Patrick Devers: Yeah. This has been a long running issue in the Atlantic Flyway going back at least 30 years, if not more. I mean, the establishment of mallards in Atlantic highway was from farm released birds going back into the early 1900. So it’s been an issue as long as we’ve been doing professional scientific management of waterfowl harvest management. So there certainly used to be tens of 1000s birds released by state agencies and others throughout the 1900s to supplement hunting. And at the same time, we had kind of a movement west of wild mallards also. And so this has been an issue been trying to get around. There’s pressure from all sides to completely outlaw the release of farm raised birds on the one hand and then other people that are very strong proponents of maintaining that practice. And, in fact, there has been some changes where we do not promote that anymore. And, in fact, you can’t get new permits to release birds, but we know existing tower shoots and things like that can continue to operate. There obviously are some potential negative effects of introgression of farm raised genetics. I’m not sure how extensive they are. I know right now there are some researchers and managers that really feel that this is the primary factor causing the decline of the mallard, the so called eastern mallard in the Atlantic Flyway. I’m not convinced completely that that is the single most important factor out there. I think there’s probably a lot of habitat change going on at the same time.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah.

Patrick Devers: But that kind of remains to be seen. Recently also, there’s been a big push to restrict winter feeding of ducks, particularly in the northeast. That kind of coincided with the decline of eastern mallards. So that’s another viable hypothesis. So there’s uncertainty about the effects of the genetics, but we’re certainly aware and concerned about them in the long term. It presents quite a management problem for your forest, because, as you said, you can’t really tell them apart until you oftentimes, till you have them in hands. And even then, a lot of the evidence is showing that there are birds out there that look perfectly wild, that until you get a genetic test back, you don’t know it has any hybrid markers in it. And so how do we manage wild ducks and meet the requirements of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act while we have farm raised birds out there that we can’t tell the difference between.

Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy.

Regulatory Considerations: Ensuring Accuracy

And the reason is because the 2 migratory populations, they’re up in Canada, reading they’re not here in early September, so we can target resident geese separately.

Patrick Devers: It is. And so it puts a lot of constraints on us. I think there is probably some talk out there that maybe we can manage the 2 differently, have more liberal regulations or even special seasons on farm raised hybrid birds to take them out across the take them off the landscape, maybe and give a little more protection to the wild birds. But really, from my perspective, I don’t see that as viable, because we just, you can’t tell them apart. And we do have breeding wild mallards up and down the flyway, so we couldn’t establish separate regulations like we do for resident geese. And the reason is because the 2 migratory populations, they’re up in Canada, reading they’re not here in early September, so we can target resident geese separately. I don’t think we can do that for pen raised or farm raised and hybrid mallards. They’re just not separated at any time of the year that would allow us to do that. And you can’t do it during the regular season because you can’t tell them apart.

Ramsey Russell: Yep. That’s a complicated subject. It’s concerning to me. It does concern me that we’ve got these – I mean, because you go to traditional, okay, go out west and it’s hard to catch native cutthroat, but because proliferation of stocked fish. And I just wonder, man, is it possible that something like that could become expressed in the waterfowl world? I don’t know. But it seems reasonable to think that. But I don’t know. And that’s why I thought I’d ask.

Patrick Devers: There is a lot of ongoing research on that. I think there are some people that feel that they’re showing some good, strong evidence that mallards that have farm raised genetics and the Old World genetics might have some different characteristics to them that may result in less productivity or difference in clutches or survival or something like that. That might really have population level effects. I think it’s an area of active research that we really have to continue to keep scratching away at.

Ramsey Russell: You mentioned that maybe if I heard you right, you mentioned that possibly, yes, you’ve got this Old World genetic thing going on, but also maybe there’s might be more wild origin, North American origin, New World origin genetics in the Atlantic Flyway. Now then, say, 150 years ago. And that probably because there’s been a lot of habitat change, it’s opened up a little bit more than historically. Do you think that of those, the wild mallard population in the Atlantic Flyway, do you feel like that there are a lot of New World genetics moving that way now that the habitat has changed?

Patrick Devers: Well, I don’t know about now. Like how much more like movement of maybe birds from the west into the east? I’m not sure that’s occurring anymore. I mean, certainly it seemed to have happened in the mid century, 1950s onward. There’s certainly a movement of mallards from the west into the east. And that got tied up into the whole controversy and concern over the decline of black ducks, which this whole genetic debate on farm raised mallards is really reminiscent of the same concerns and debates that happened about mallards were hybridizing with black ducks and were going to drive black ducks extinct. And people were saying that was going to happen by the 1990s. It didn’t. Which that gives me a little pause about the farm raised birds. Not to say that I want farm raised birds on the landscape. I prefer, not personally, but, that’s not my call. But I’m also – It gives me a little pause to, like, I don’t – I think we can take our time and research this and make some good decisions down the road about how to handle it.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Patrick Devers: In other words, I’m not sure the sky’s falling tomorrow.

Ramsey Russell: Good point. I was talking to Ben Lekonin[**00:57:46], who’s a PhD student over in the Great Lakes and he was talking about a lot of the Old World versus New World genetics. And one thing he talked about is how he was talking about differentiating the wild from the new. Like, kind of like you might do Canada geese. But one thing he said their research was showing is how the Old World genetics have a proclivity for urban habitats. They’d rather be in a neighborhood pond than out in a wild marsh. And I think that relevant because one of the questions I want to ask you about was habitat conditions. And obviously, there’s a lot of sprawling civilization in the Atlantic Flyway, around some of those big cities, as compared to, say, Mississippi. So, I mean, that would really kind of be the perfect storm for those birds to expand, because now I’ve got this population of mallards that prefer urban habitats where they’re not accessible to hunters. And the reason I remembered that is because as he was talking about, these birds wouldn’t migrate like the New World genetics would. I said, well, there’s fewer mallards, say, in the state of Michigan, there might be fewer mallards, but there’s few of them migrating. So that’s got to be great for hunters. He says, no, because they like to sit in neighborhood ponds where they can’t be hunted.

Patrick Devers: Yeah, no, that’s interesting. I mean, certainly mallards, much more so than any other duck and certainly much more than a black duck is comfortable around people and thrive in urban and suburban environments. I personally didn’t know that there was a strong link with the Old World versus New World genetics. Obviously, it’s something I got to get caught up on. I mean, I do know even in the Central Flyway, and having conducted breeding surveys of mallards in that area, you’ll find those mallards in urban areas and nesting in planet flowers and stuff like that, too. So there is just some plasticity to mallards in general.

Ramsey Russell: Right.

Patrick Devers: They can certainly thrive there now, if the Old World birds are more prone to it. That’s interesting.

Ramsey Russell: That’s an interesting wrinkle, isn’t it? Not that you don’t have enough fired in the fire right now, Patrick. But anyway, what about habitat concerns in the Atlantic Flyway? I mean, sprawling civilization? I mean, and humanity, for some reason, we love to build homes in coastal areas and wetland areas and low lying areas with a view. How do you even begin to get your hands around something as daunting as that habitat loss in the Atlantic Flyway.

Patrick Devers: Yeah, that’s the 900 pound gorilla, right?

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

Patrick Devers: But luckily, we have some great programs in place that are trying to still, to preserve some good habitat out there for waterfowl and variety of other species. And the first one I would point to is the hugely successful joint venture program.

Ramsey Russell: Absolutely.

Patrick Devers: That started with the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The primary one in the Atlantic Flyaway is the Atlantic coast joint venture. And they work from Maine to Florida, really working closely with state agency partners, non government organizations, Ducks Unlimited Delta, Nature Conservancy, little local private land trust to really put money on the ground to conserve all kinds of wetlands. That’s one of our best tools. We can do it. We have some good refuges in Atlantic Flyway, too. But then I also really think Natural Resources Conservation Service and their ability to work with private landowners and farmers to really provide great wildlife habitat on private land is probably one of our best tools out there. But it is daunting, populations. Human population just continues to grow and expand and certainly that’s our biggest factor in the Atlantic coast.

Ramsey Russell: The joint venture program you mentioned is kind of colloquially known as the partners program. Is that right?

Patrick Devers: No, those are separate. Yeah. So the joint ventures is funded through, in large part through the Migratory Bird Program. So it started with the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and the identification of some regional partnerships that they called joint ventures. And there’s the Lower Mississippi Valley Joint Venture, there’s the Atlanta Coast Joint Venture, Prairie Pothole Joint Venture and a handful of others. That is expanded now that we have a joint venture from coast to coast in the United States trying to conserve all kinds of wetlands, but all kinds of habitat for all birds, actually. The partners program is actually in our Ecological Services Program.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Patrick Devers: And that is geared towards working really specifically with private landowners on, I think, a lot for endangered species or to kind of help prevent having to list species as endangered and avoid conflict with private landowners around endangered species. But it is a little broader than just that. But it is a separate program.

Ramsey Russell: I mean, I’m vaguely familiar with the partners program here in the deep south, it does have a waterfowl interest. Pipes, levees, technical assistance, multi agencies approach, state and federal and private landowners, pull together everybody, collectively into habitat. It’s a wonderful program.

Patrick Devers: Yeah. And they work closely with the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is US Department of Agriculture. Yeah. I mean, just focused in general on providing great wildlife habitat on private land.

Ramsey Russell: Talk about some other species. Black ducks, for example. How are black ducks doing? I mean, because I know their limit got raised from 1 to 2. That’s great news for Atlantic Flyway hunters. They must be doing great.

Impact of Urbanization on Habitat Loss

So really hammering out that international harvest strategy was a great deal for US hunters in particular. But regulations also liberalized in Canada on black ducks, they’re doing great.

Patrick Devers: They’re doing well. Yeah, that’s a great story. Makes me real happy. So their population has been really relatively stable since now probably 2000, 2010. It’s been doing pretty well. Not, it’s not growing, but it’s also not declining. So we feel like between Canada and US, we’ve been able to hit a really good sweet spot on harvest regulations that are, like you said, a little more liberal in the United States. When I started in 2006, I think nobody expected anytime soon to go back to 2 birds. So really hammering out that international harvest strategy was a great deal for US hunters in particular. But regulations also liberalized in Canada on black ducks, they’re doing great. They’re still a focus for the Migratory Bird Program and for the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture and the eastern habitat joint venture in Canada. We’re really still focused on trying to provide important habitats for them. Salt Marsh is key for them, but we also know that they use some of these interior freshwater wetlands also. They do seem to be – the concern I have, it gets back to what we’re just talking about is they’re a lot more sensitive to human activity and development, so much more than mallard. So every time you see houses go in around what used to be a nice wetland, you can almost be sure that black ducks aren’t coming back to that. They’re just really sensitive to connectivity.

Ramsey Russell: There’s still a lot of salt marsh like you were talking about New Jersey earlier, going black duck hunting. And, man, I have been through Atlantic City and all that humanity build up around it and 30 minutes away from the boat ramp, it cannot possibly be much different than it was when the pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. I mean, it’s like unbelievable.

Patrick Devers: I could see Atlantic City the morning that I got my first black duck. Absolutely. Those marshes there in southern Jersey are very expansive. They’re in great shape. They’re protected both by state and federal wetland regulations, clean water regulations, which has been really a great thing for black ducks in that area. And so we’re not going to see a whole lot more development there because they are protected, but we’re losing those now to sea level rise. It’s going to be the big concern for coastal marshes and black ducks.

Ramsey Russell: Let’s talk about North America’s largest waterfowl species, the swans, because I can remember, if you wanted to check them off your list, you bought a license and went to North Carolina, and there’s a lot of opportunities for swans. I know that they can be hunted by draw in Virginia, Delaware. So North Carolina, Delaware, Virginia. Is there anywhere else in the eastern seaboard that you can apply to hunt swans?

Patrick Devers: No, those are the only 3 states.

Ramsey Russell: Still there’s 3 tiers what it used to be. I mean, so something must be going on. They must be doing good. And I know driving through those states, there’s a bunch of swans. Man, they’re doing great. What’s going on with the swans, Patrick?

Patrick Devers: Well. They’re doing well. Tundra swans seem to be healthy and just kind of moving along. I don’t think they’re growing through the roof at all, but, yeah, certainly enough there that we’ve been able to expand the hunting opportunity, most recently to Delaware. They just went operational with their hunting season. They had a 3 year experiment that they had to conduct first to show that we’re targeting the right species and things like that. And so now they are operational. I don’t know if Maryland might be interested in exploring opportunities here in the near future or not. I think there might have been – There might be some talk about that. We’ll see.

Ramsey Russell: It’s an interesting species from a standpoint, that, on the one hand, it’s a hunting opportunity. On the other hand, not everybody in the public understands going to shooting a swan. With the ugly duckling story, we all got red. Was that pretty much widely received? I mean, positively, from a management standpoint? Or is it.

Patrick Devers: For swan hunting?

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Or is it conflictual because of that reason?

Patrick Devers: I think in the Delmarva area, I think it’s pretty well accepted. I haven’t heard anything recently that it’s been a problem. I mean, probably the bigger – this hasn’t been, the mute swan issue has been probably a little tougher sometimes in some states. Because mute swans are in invasive from Europe. And they can do a lot of damage to wetlands and have effects on tundras and trumpeters.

Ramsey Russell: Can you hunt mute swans in the Atlantic Fly away? Because I’ve heard yes and no, depending on who you ask.

Patrick Devers: Well, they’re not protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty, so they’re not federally regulated.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Patrick Devers: Because they’re not a native species, so then they have a state by state. That’s right.

Ramsey Russell: Wow.

Patrick Devers: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve actually hunted them in Netherlands, where there’s an abundance of anti hunters and they’re only hunted under depredation permit. Just imagine so many swans that the owner of an 80 acre, fifth generation, 80 acre dairy farm cannot feed his cows and produce milk because there’s so many swans. Isn’t that crazy?

Patrick Devers: That’s crazy. And where was this?

Ramsey Russell: The Netherlands? Holland.

Patrick Devers: Oh, okay.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Specifically mute swans is what they’re dealing with over there. And they’re mean. They don’t like other birds in their stretch of home territory.

Patrick Devers: Well, that’s right. Yeah. That’s why they were such an issue that, particularly Maryland took on very seriously back in the 80s and 90s.

Ramsey Russell: How are the Atlantic brant doing?

Patrick Devers: Yeah, I don’t have numbers for you right off the top of my head. I mean, they’re –

Ramsey Russell: I see them everywhere in over there.

Patrick Devers: Well, you see them everywhere in Jersey and Long Island and maybe a little bit in a few other spaces. But you have some in the Chesapeake Bay. You get them down into Virginia and stuff like that. But the real stronghold is New Jersey and Long Island. We kind of been switching around between pretty moderate and restrictive regulations on them over the last 10, 20 years. So their populations, I wouldn’t say are the strongest. They’re not. We’d like to see more out of them would be great. But I think that’s a lot of habitat and seagrass and some other things that they need that are a little harder to get at.

Ramsey Russell: I read one time, and this is interesting, because one of the best tasting North American species is Pacific brant, where they feed on eelgrass. It’s delectable. But if you talk to Atlantic Flyway hunters, they disdain the taste of – abundantly. I ain’t saying this holds true. I’m not trying to paint with a broad brush, but I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t like to eat them because they don’t taste well. And I read one time on the internet that because of civilization and everything that comes with it, that 90% of the eelgrass beds have disappeared, just because of humanity. And where I see a lot of the brant feed now are just in parks, I mean, feeding like resident Canada geese, just on baseball fields and city parks and everywhere else. And maybe that just affect, you all what you eat, so maybe that affects them.

Patrick Devers: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. I’ve heard the same thing. I’ve heard that if you get them up in Canada and eastern Canada, they taste a lot better. But by the time they get down here, like you said, I think I said seagrass earlier, eelgrass, they just change and they don’t want to eat them. They just don’t taste as well. It probably is exactly what they’re feeding on.

Ramsey Russell: You already ever change just a little bit. There you go. It’s a little bit better. And finally –

Patrick Devers: I had to step outside. I have a 10 month old English setter and she was starting to whine, so I need to get her outside.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah. You still are an upland bird hunter then.

Patrick Devers: Yes, sir. Yeah. I was wrestling between a lab and an upland bird dog and this one kind of fell in my lap. And sometimes you let the dog choose you.

Ramsey Russell: The last species I was going to ask you about are eiders. I know that their bag limit has decreased markedly. And I’ve heard talking to a lot of folks on the eastern seaboard, I’ve heard a lot of interesting thoughts. Some of the people say, well, it’s just too much civilization. I used to have a sea duck captain, Adam Smith, that told me that 20, 30 years ago, you never saw common eiders in the summertime out around Boston Harbor, but now you do. I caught an email back this fall when the bird flu was going around that I think this came from. I got an email from Connecticut and I got an email from somewhere in Canada asking to refrain from shooting hen eiders that they were getting. They were particularly susceptible to the bird flu. How are they doing? And what do you think are going on with them and how do you manage them?

Patrick Devers: Yeah, they seem to be taking it on the chin in a lot of different ways. I think there’s the disease issues, bird flu issues. There could be increased predation from eagles out on their breeding colonies. And then I’ve also talking to some of the other state managers seems like conditions, food availability and just conditions. And a lot of the Gulf of Maine and up in that area seem to be changing rapidly. And that’s probably having an effect on productivity of eiders, which I think is probably a really important issue for them. Again, it’s a long lived species, and you start to have no productivity that’s going to hurt their population. So we do have concerns over them. We’ve changed regulations on all sea ducks, but particularly eiders, pretty conservative on them. And then what you mentioned where it’s kind of that request to go out there to refrain voluntarily, that was in part, we had state agencies, line of flyway had concerns over them, but then also, Canada was really restrictive also. And so to kind of try to match up with them and be good partners with the Canadian Wildlife Service. That request went out from some of the state agencies. But, yeah, I think changing conditions, we do think that their populations are declining, but there is some evidence and hypothesis that they’re also just changing their distribution. And again, that’s probably in response to water temperature, food availability, things like that. So it’s kind of hard to tease those 2 apart. How many have we lost versus how many have moved to an area where we’re not seeing them right now?

Ramsey Russell: It’s a very daunting process, managing waterfowl throughout the flyway, isn’t it? So many different, you got so many different species groups you’ve got to take care of, too. That incredible challenging.

Patrick Devers: Over a very large expanse of space. Yeah. It’s exciting though, too. It’s super exciting.

Ramsey Russell: Of course. Have you ever seen or run across any research or reading or anything like I had somebody recently mentioned that whereas 20, 30, 40 years ago, a few die hards hunted eiders or hunted some of these different cadre of species, whereas now, limited access or limited hunting opportunities for, let’s just pick on mallards again, that a lot of the hunters just to go hunt, have started targeting species that maybe nobody did. In other words, there may be more eider hunters now than there were historically because it’s a cool thing to do. They’re collecting species or they have limited opportunities for other puddle ducks or divers than they historically did. Do you think that might play a role in some of what’s going on?

Patrick Devers: Yeah, I think so. I mean, so we used to have a special season on sea ducks and Atlantic Flyway and it was – Yeah, it used to be that people didn’t hunt them a whole lot. And we think that, yeah, as opportunity on black ducks and then particularly mallards went down, maybe people switched. We think that might be part of it. And addition to that, yeah, sea ducks also have more of a trophy status to them. Like once in a lifetime hunt. So people are going out there, paying guides to take them out because it takes so much equipment. It’s not the safest of the waterfowl world. And so there’s, I think, a lot of interest amongst water followers to get them as that once in a lifetime hunt. It seems I don’t have great data on this that. But maybe when we restricted regulations on – made our restricted regulations back around 2010, that might have actually kind of pushed people to go out there and pursue those ducks because they are once in a lifetime and restrictions were getting more or more restrictions are getting in place. So that might have actually encouraged some extra effort on sea ducks recently. It’s kind of opposite of what we want it to happen because eiders and all the other sea ducks, we just don’t have – There’s much information we don’t have. We can’t band them or not many of them because of where they breed. We can’t count them very well because of where they breed. So we really just don’t know as much about them. So that makes harvest management really difficult.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah. It’s all about the numbers, isn’t it?

Patrick Devers: It is, that’s right. You want to be able to take just enough or as much as can that you don’t hurt your future opportunity, right?

Ramsey Russell: Yep. Patrick, thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed this conversation. I found it very informative, very enlightening and I appreciate your time. And I also appreciate your agency, US Fish & Wildlife Service, for letting you come on board to educate all of us regular duck hunters out here. Thank you very much.

Patrick Devers: Well, I really appreciate the opportunity and be able to talk on behalf of the Atlantic Flyway. It’s a great flyway. Atlantic Flyway Council is just fantastic professionals and I just real lucky to be able to work with them all. And I appreciate the opportunity to talk with you today.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.

[End of Audio]

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