The sun is setting on the rooftops of fabled Delta Waterfowl Research Station across the road, and gregarious Canada goose flocks are trading along the sprawling shores of Lake Manitoba when Ramsey Russell meets with Jim Leafloor, Head of Aquatic Unit for the Canadian Wildlife Service. Responsible for all migratory gamebird management activities throughout Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan, Leafloor’s team also oversees arctic goose banding programs. A lifelong waterfowl hunter himself, Leafloor covers pertinent, must-hear migratory waterfowl management topics from the Mississippi Flyway headwaters. How’d Leafloor begin waterfowl hunting, what lead to his interest in becoming a waterfowl biologist? How are Canadian bag limits determined and why are they more generous than in the Unjted States? What drives harvest rates, how are harvest rates determined and do spinning-winged decoys detrimentally increase harvest? Why were pintail limits increased from 4 to 8 daily throughout Prairie Canada? What happened when mallard bag limits were lowered in Canada last time? How might prevailing drought conditions affect Canadian duck bag limits in upcoming seasons–and what other important factors are now considered? What proposed modernizations to Migratory Bird regulations could effect waterfowl hunters, why were they proposed? Is there really a new spring hunting season for Canada geese in Manitoba? In a world awash with misinformation derived from intentional bureaucratic obscurity and online armchair quarterback conjecture, it’s sobering to hear it explained straight from the top and backed by scientific data. You do not want to miss this episode.
Insight from Jim Leafloor of Game Bird Management, Canada
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere and have I got a guest today. I am – listen to where I’m at – I’m on the shore of Manitoba Lake. Right across the road I can see the rooftops of Delta Waterfowl research lab, one of the most famous waterfowl research places on God’s Earth. Today’s guest is Jim Leafloor. He’s the head of aquatic unit for the Canadian Wildlife Service. He’s covering Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan they handle the goose banding up in all of it. Head of aquatic unit, which is to say, he’s in charge of Game Bird Management here in Canada. Jim, how are you, sir?
Jim Leafloor: Very well.
Ramsey Russell: Thank you for joining us. I feel like I’ve known you, we’ve been sitting here visiting and warming up for a good long while now. And I’ve really heard some good information from you and everything else. The first thing I want to ask you, where did you grow up? We’re sitting here in beautiful Manitoba, this headwaters of the Mississippi Flyway, this is where it all goes down, isn’t it?
Starting the Journey Toward Wildlife Management on the Mississippi Flyway Headwaters
Canada geese which are everywhere today, were actually relatively rare. We would go out of our way to follow Canada geese to find out where they were going so we could chase them.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Well, I was a military kid, so I was actually born on the east coast in Nova Scotia and traveled around quite a bit as a kid. But I spent, I guess what you’d call my formative years here in southern Manitoba and only about 15 miles from where we’re sitting right now at Delta Marsh.
Ramsey Russell: Did you hunt back in those days?
Jim Leafloor: I did. This is where I started hunting back in ‘77.
Ramsey Russell: What were you all mostly hunting here? I’m sitting here looking at the back door and there’s a bunch of Canada geese and I know the signs on the delta marsh of canvasbacks. What else did you all hunt?
Jim Leafloor: Most of the time we spent chasing snow geese.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. When I first started, this was a big staging area for snow geese. Canada geese which are everywhere today, were actually relatively rare. We would go out of our way to follow Canada geese to find out where they were going so we could chase them. And we spent a lot of years hunting in the marsh, did a lot of diver hunting here in the 80s.
Ramsey Russell: Canvasbacks?
Jim Leafloor: Some cans and a lot of scaup. A lot of Kansas scaup those are probably the 2 biggest species.
Ramsey Russell: Do you still remember your first duck?
Jim Leafloor: I do.
Ramsey Russell: Or your first bird?
Jim Leafloor: My first duck was a blue winged teal that I shot in Simpson’s Bay as a 13 year old pass shooting, just standing around the cattails waiting for something to come by. No decoys.
Ramsey Russell: My first duck was standing around a little bit older than that, just standing around with a shotgun waiting on the ducks to come in. And that keeps life simple. I still like to pass shoot some. How did you get into duck hunting? I mean, did a mentor take you or was it just so dead gum many birds out here that you just said, yeah, I think I’m going to start hunting?
Jim Leafloor: Well, I became fascinated with waterfowl long before I moved to Manitoba as an 11 year old. My dad was a duck hunter and some of my earliest memories were of just staying awake at night waiting for my dad to come home after dark just so we could see what he had.
Ramsey Russell: What did he have normally?
Jim Leafloor: Well, he had a real mixed bag. We lived in Northern Alberta at the time, in Cold Lake, and sometimes he had grouse, sometimes he had divers, sometimes he had dabblers, and that’s kind of one of the things that fascinated me the most was we never knew what he would have. they were all different and we wanted to collect as many of the wings and feet as we could because they were all pretty unique to us and pretty fascinating.
Ramsey Russell: And that’s something how children are, you just want to touch, and see, and collect, and pet. And I’ve always said as a daddy, I just learned that seems like children only really know what they touch and they only really love what they know. And I think that carries on through our life. Do you think some of those earlier foundations collecting wings and feet of your daddy’s mixed bag, is that what led you down the path of wildlife management?
Jim Leafloor: Absolutely. There’s never been – well I think for a brief period I wanted to be a Game Warden when I was in high school – but I met a man named El-Panko when I was 13. He owned a grocery store in Portage and I worked for him and he was a big hunter, a goose hunter. And he and I eventually became lifelong hunting partners. We hunted together for 40 years until he passed away just a few years ago. So he was kind of instrumental in getting me into serious waterfowl hunting, Goose hunting especially. I would say him and my dad were probably the 2 biggest influences. But other than – I guess one of the things he did was talk me out of becoming a Game Warden because he said, “Think about it, you’ll be busy during hunting season, you’ll never go hunting again.” And I thought that was a really good point.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a very good point.
Jim Leafloor: So yeah, it was pretty quickly on to the next thing, which was either to become a wildlife technician or a biologist with a focus on waterfowl.
Ramsey Russell: Where did you get your degree? And what do you get your degree in?
Jim Leafloor: I have a few degrees. I got a Bachelor of Science here in Winnipeg at the University of Manitoba and I studied with Dave at the University of Western Ontario to do a Master’s.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a name I recognized.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Dave’s pretty well known. My research was done right here at Delta at the Waterfowl station in the late 1980s. And following that, I actually got a job in Northern Ontario as a biologist. It was on the job in Ontario that I actually was allowed to do a PhD on Canada geese, which I did at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
All About Delta Waterfowl Research
Delta was probably one of the foremost research facility in the world for people interested in waterfowl.
Ramsey Russell: For those listening that may not know, what is this Delta Waterfowl research over here? What is it? What’s the history and the importance to waterfowl research?
Ramsey Russell: Well, it has a kind of a lengthy history going back to the first scientific director, I believe that I knew while he was alive was Albert Hochbaum. Dr. Hochbaum was a student of Aldo Leopold and he was kind of the first director of this waterfowl research station here. And at the time that I went through Delta, I was hired as an assistant here in 1986. Delta was probably one of the foremost research facility in the world for people interested in waterfowl. So at that time, Delta was hiring about 25 or 30 summer students each year that assisted graduate students with their research projects. And in that way we got a lot of different experience, we traveled around doing different things, and we also met a lot of people. So over the course of about 3 years that I worked here, I probably met – oh, I mean if you named an organization that deals with waterfowl in North America, I would know somebody probably who I met here or through Delta, or they would have some connection through Delta. That’s how big it was.
Ramsey Russell: But it hasn’t always been a research station, it started as a private hunting club, is that right?
Jim Leafloor: I’m not sure. The Bell family owned the property here at Delta for a long time. I don’t know if it was really a private hunting club or if it was just the family inviting guests, that sort of thing.
Ramsey Russell: Is the Bell family the one that owned General Mills?
Jim Leafloor: That’s my understanding, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: What makes this place so – this region right here, this marsh, this Delta marsh, what makes it so special?
Jim Leafloor: Well, it’s got a lot of history to it. It’s one of the big important wetlands in this province for waterfowl obviously and it’s undergone a lot of changes just in the time that I’ve been here. I’ve seen it go from pretty spectacular hunting through some pretty lean years and more recently, there’s been some work done to exclude carp from the marsh. That has been very helpful at rejuvenating the habitat and bringing back the ducks. And yeah, I think it’s on pretty good footing these days.
Ramsey Russell: For as long as anybody can remember for just since forever, it’s always been a major important area.
Jim Leafloor: Big staging area.
What Does the Head of the Aquatic Unit for Game Birds Do?
So we are responsible for conducting the surveys and banding of waterfowl in our region and in the Arctic region as well.
Ramsey Russell: Big staging area for waterfowl. What exactly do you do for the head of aquatic unit in charge of game birds? Like what exactly do you do?
Jim Leafloor: Well, most of our focus is on monitoring game bird population. So we are responsible for conducting the surveys and banding of waterfowl in our region and in the Arctic region as well. We’re also responsible for regulating harvest and really anything that involves game bird species whether it’s developing management plans through the flyway councils, regulating harvest, or contributing to environmental assessments, at times putting in our feedback on how certain development projects might affect waterfowl or their habitats, that type of thing.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s what I was looking at regulating harvesting. I mean, basically you’re overseeing the science that is driving the management, the harvest models and all that good stuff like that. That’s what you do.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, in cooperation with a lot of partners.
Ramsey Russell: Right. It is a partnership, isn’t it?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, International Waterfowl Management and the Federal government in Canada work closely with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. We work together with the 4 flyway councils, we’re a part of those flyway councils, and we also work with the provinces and territories in Canada. So yeah, there’s a lot of people involved.
Ramsey Russell: How much time have you spent banding up in the Arctic? Because Manitoba, just the scale of a Canadian province is mind blowing as compared to say the state of Mississippi, it’s just unbelievable.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Well, the Arctic kind of makes the size of the province seem small. The Arctic is a big place, I will say. I’s beautiful, it’s largely untouched, and it’s a privilege to be able to go there and see these places that very few people ever get to see. But yeah, we band all over Nunavut or I shouldn’t say all over, we tend to focus on concentration areas, so we band geese at Baffin Island, on Southampton Island, and we have a couple of crews in the central Arctic in the Queen Maud Gulf region. We have a crew from Yellowknife that bands on Banks Island in the western Arctic. And there are other non-government projects that also band in the Arctic. So University of Laval bands on Violet Island for greater snow geese, Rocky Rockwall and his crew from New York band at Churchill and have for 60 years or so. So yeah, a lot of people.
What is the Purpose of Banding Waterfowl?
Band recoveries are probably one of the biggest sources of information for determining flyways or migration corridors, but over time we’ve also seen some of those change, and a lot of that new information comes from modern banding data.
Ramsey Russell: Is most of the banding now done strictly for harvest, just to help compute harvest rates or is there still – like I know historically, I thought I understood it had to do a lot of migration corridors and things like that, but that’s not so much that anymore, is it?
Jim Leafloor: Well, there’s so much you can learn from banding data and this is where hunters really contribute a lot of information, frankly. Band recoveries are probably one of the biggest sources of information for determining flyways or migration corridors, but over time we’ve also seen some of those change, and a lot of that new information comes from modern banding data. But we can use banding data to look at patterns of harvest, identify areas where harvest intensity may be very high. For example, one of the main things we use it for is to monitor harvest rates. So what proportion of the population is being taken by hunters each year? And we’re particularly interested in changes in harvest rate and particularly if harvest rates get very high or very low, those are things that are of interest. We can calculate survival estimates, so we can get annual survival rates for the birds we band and we can also combine banding data with harvest data to estimate population size. And that’s been a fairly recent development, but one that is very important, particularly for Arctic nesting geese, because there’s really no good way to survey populations that are that large that occupy such remote habitats and are spread over a very large area.
Ramsey Russell: That’s just mind blowing. How important was Jack Miner to the science or the implementation of bands by federal government agencies?
Jim Leafloor: Well, I’m fairly sure that Jack Miner was the first person to band birds in Canada in the early 1900s. And probably one of the very first analyses that was ever done was an analysis of all the banding as they did in Southern Ontario that occurred in 1950. And that told us a lot about how Canada geese were moving up and down the flyway at that time. So, I would say he was foundational and a lot of the banding programs that we have today are built on some of that experience that we gained from that early data set.
Ramsey Russell: I know a lot of the younger listeners don’t even know who Jack Miner is. Look him up, look up Wild Goose Jack. My understanding, Jim, is he somehow figured out a lot of these geese he was shooting in Ontario were coming from the part of the Arctic that were inhabited by native populations that may not have known the word of Christ and he just saw it as a way to kind of –
Jim Leafloor: Spread the word.
Ramsey Russell: Spread the word. Isn’t that crazy?
Jim Leafloor: It’s kind of interesting. I’m kind of fascinated by Jack Miner and his bands. I first came across those when I worked in Northern Ontario when I moved into my office there, in fact, I had a drawer full of them, I didn’t really know what they were at the time. So that was kind of my introduction to Jack Miner and caused me to kind of look him up and learn a little more about his history at the time.
How are Pintail Bag Limits in Canada Determined?
Well, it’s kind of a combination of – I would say – a combination of science and politics and history.
Ramsey Russell: Interesting character, interesting place. Very interesting. I’ve got a question, we talked about the number crunching the science of a lot of what you all are doing, so I’ll throw this out here. I’ve been asked recently – this week somebody anonymously wanted to kick my shins because we’d gone and had a great hunt and I think 4 or 5 of us had shot 16 “hen pintails” – brown pintails. And for people that may not understand, myself included, that’s why I’m asking this question, one pintail in the United States. Eight this year up here with no sex differentiation. How is stuff like that determined? How do you all come up with those numbers and the sustainability of it all about the pintails?
Jim Leafloor: Well, it’s kind of a combination of – I would say – a combination of science and politics and history. In the case of pintails we recently removed restrictions on harvest in Canada and there was a few considerations behind that. Number one, we did an analysis of all the pintail banding data that had been gathered in the prairies since 1960. And we looked at how harvest rates changed over time, how survival rates changed or didn’t change over time. And what we found was that pintails tended to have a fairly steady harvest rate across many decades. They didn’t have drastic swings in survival but on average, probably 65% of the pintails, adult pintails in a given year would survive till the next. We also found that they had fairly low harvest rates and that in years when we had restricted harvest by lowering bag limits, we didn’t necessarily see the response that we expected. In some cases or I would say in most cases, in all cases, when we lower the bag limit, our intention is to reduce harvest rates and when we last lowered pintails bag limits, we changed them from 8 down to 4 I believe, there really was no noticeable change in harvest rate. And in fact, even though we cut the bag limit in half, harvest rates actually increased slightly over a couple of decades. So one of the things that we learned from this is that bag limits are not necessarily the thing that’s going to determine the harvest rate. There are other factors involved in determining what proportion of the population is harvested. The other thing that we considered was the fact that 40 years ago we had four times as many hunters as what we have today. So we lost 75% of our hunters since about 1978 and our harvest of ducks, all ducks, mallards, pintails, every species, really, has declined by about the same amount. So it’s our estimation that one of the things that is most important in determining harvest rate is the number of hunters. So historically, when the prairies went dry and populations declined, the response by management agency would be to reduce harvest and the intent was reduced harvest rates, increased survival and help to build that population back up or at least that was the theory. But it didn’t always seem to work that way and the only time that the populations really bounced back is when we see very good nesting conditions returned to the prairies. So after a drought in the 1980s, when water came back on the Canadian prairies and the US prairies as well. In the 90s, we didn’t see a big bounce back of pintails, but ducks in general had much better production and populations went up and we’ve seen just in the past decade all-time highs for a number of species of ducks.
What are the Factors that Influence Pintail Populations?
As a result, there are not as many safe places for pintails to nest in sparse habitat. More and more of them seem to be lost to agricultural activities.
Ramsey Russell: Is there other factors or besides harvest or influencing pintail populations. What are some of those factors? What’s going on with pintails, Jim?
Jim Leafloor: I think there’s a few different theories, but the one that makes a lot of sense to a lot of the people I talk to is the fact that agricultural intensification has occurred across the prairies. pintails prefer sparse nesting habitat –
Ramsey Russell: Short grass prairie.
Jim Leafloor: Short grass prairie, stubble fields, fallow fields, historically, and when conditions are wet, pintails can do very well. But fallow fields, the practice of idling a field for a year so that you can return some of the nutrients to the soil, those fallow fields provided excellent nesting habitat for pintails. But some studies have shown and demonstrated that these fallow fields no longer exist, that agriculture is continuously cropping, there’s a lot more inputs, fertilizer or whatever it takes to grow a crop every year. As a result, there are not as many safe places for pintails to nest in sparse habitat. More and more of them seem to be lost to agricultural activities.
Ramsey Russell: In the absence of fallow, all they have is residual stubble, that’s where they nest and here comes the tractors.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: That’s pretty much the scenario.
How Does Bag Limit Management for Shared Continental Waterfowl Work Between Countries?
I think when it comes to duck limits, it’s fair to say that there – historically – there’s been quite a bit of coordination between the Canada and the U.S.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, it’s either tractors or cattle in some cases, I guess. So, pintails haven’t been able to bounce back in the same way as other species have, but neither have we seen dramatic increases in harvest or anything that would give us any concern about the number of birds being harvested in Canada for example, today.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a limit of 8 ducks, I’m trying to ask you about Canadian limits. How does Canada, and the United States, and let’s throw Mexico in there for the whole continent. How do you all coordinate on who – I mean, we got 3 independent sovereign nations working together for a national resource, a continental resource. How do you all parse that out? Does the United States take into consideration what ya’ll’s limits are? Do you all take into consideration what the United States’ and Mexico’s limits are? How does that work? I don’t know.
Jim Leafloor: I think when it comes to duck limits, it’s fair to say that there – historically there’s been quite a bit of coordination between the Canada and the U.S. When bag limits decrease in the US they also tended to decrease in Canada. I’m not so sure that will be the same going forward simply because the hunter population in Canada is so much smaller than it is today, that it really doesn’t make sense to do the same things that we were doing 40 years ago, for example. So when conditions went dry 40 years ago, often the response would be duck population is declining and managers like myself would respond by restricting bag limits or hunting season length to try and reduce harvest. And since that time, hunter numbers have declined by about 75% in Canada. So any restrictions that we would have made back in the 1970s or ‘80s, for example, wouldn’t have resulted in a 75% reduction in harvest. But the loss of all those hunters has resulted in about 75% decline in our harvest. So yeah, the levels of harvesting Canada today are so much lower than they were historically. We know that historical levels of harvest were actually sustainable because we’ve seen water returned to the prairies in the 1990s, and all of these species bounced back, some of them to record high numbers just in the past decade or so. So does it really make sense for us to restrict harvest at a time when drought is really the thing that’s driving the population downward?
Ramsey Russell: You can’t really stockpile of ducks regardless. I mean, that’s what I’ve always heard.
Jim Leafloor: Well, what our analyses show is that survival rates of these birds are actually fairly steady for the adult component. There’s about 30-35% of those birds dying each year and most of that mortality is not directly related to hunting, from what we can tell from our banding data. So yeah, it doesn’t seem like stockpiling ducks is something that’s really going to do much to make numbers bounce back.
Ramsey Russell: We were talking before that, it’s an interesting time as duck hunting. Because talk to any duck hunter in America there’s too many duck hunters, there’s too many duck hunters, but at the same time we got a lot of pressure, we’ve got a lot of competition, we got a lot of stuff going on but at the same time we need more duck hunters now more than ever I believe for financial relevance, political relevance, money. We need money to drive this machine, money is what is the science that’s going into that, is being generated by hunters, not by bird watchers, not by non-hunters, not by anti-hunters by hunters. We’re putting skin in the game with NGO’s and with taxes and everything and just our interest to drive this science and we need more hunters, so I get what you’re saying. Man, you lost 75% of your hunters. Why do you think there was that decline?
Jim Leafloor: Hard to say. I don’t know if I’ve ever –
Ramsey Russell: Access or because of restricted bag limits in the past or -?
Jim Leafloor: I think the drought might have had something to do with it. I mean there have been a lot of ideas floated over time, but one of the things obviously is access to hunting areas, getting harder and harder to find places for people to hunt. Some of them are – I think are economic factors, it can be quite expensive to be a waterfowl hunter these days.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a fact.
Jim Leafloor: Given the miles you have to put on for scouting or just go into a place that’s accessible to hunt.
Ramsey Russell: Shotgun shells, guns, waders, equipment. Yeah, I mean it’s expensive. It sure is. Jim, when you look at the harvest data, and I’m assuming it’s all equal, and it doesn’t matter – when you look at your harvest data and your models for hunters related harvest in Canada, does it take into consideration the commercial activities? Does it take outfitters, US hunters, does the harvest take into account the enormous amount of guided hunting and commercial activities? Even with it, there seems to be a lot more hunters here in Canada now than U.S. hunters here hunting with outfitters then maybe back in the ‘70s. So, is it still balancing out with the decline in Canadian hunters?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. I mean, we have seen an increase in the number of nonresident hunters over time, although the past couple of years have been an obvious exception. But all of our harvest surveys account for harvest by nonresident hunters. Band recovery data, I mean, we really don’t differentiate between local hunters versus non-residents versus outfitters versus non-outfitted hunters, I mean they’re all kind of wrapped up in the same data.
Ramsey Russell: The data is the data. That’s what I just want to make sure. Because there are just a – if you don’t know, you don’t know. You know, you’re looking at the numbers and the numbers never lie. You know what I’m saying? And that’s the whole point I was trying to make is just you hear conversations out here on the streets about how there’s too many hunters up there, there’s all these Americans. Let’s talk about this. You know the difference in a commercial outfitter – and I work with many and know many and love many, respect them because it’s a tough business. But at the same time, the pressure put on a guide anywhere in the world versus just me and you going out to hunt, buddy, it’s a totally different mindset. It’s totally different.
Jim Leafloor: I mean, outfitters are obviously professionals right? They’re mostly people who are good at what they do. But I think the regulations that we have these days, the bag limits, the season lengths, can easily account for the amount of activity that we have on the landscape. There are like I said, 75% fewer hunters today than there were in the late 1970’s and our harvest has declined the same amount when it comes to ducks. Interestingly, when it comes to geese, even though we have 75% fewer hunters out there, our goose harvests have actually been increasing over time.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, because goose populations are just so much more abundant today than they were 40 years ago.
A Discussion on the Proposed Modernization of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act
A few years back, we proposed a bunch of changes to bring our regulations up to date and to essentially get rid of some irritants that we had run across over the years.
Ramsey Russell: They sure are abundant up here and I’m going to tell you, there’s a lot of geese, and you know that’s what brought me to Canada decades ago was not waterfowl, not ducks. Geese, migratory geese. And I’m sitting here looking out your window, there are just bunches and bunches of them flying up and down the bank, man those was a big, beautiful Canada geese. And Jim, I want to touch on a subject. Back in 2019, I became aware of some proposed changes to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act kind of a proposed modernization of some of those laws. Can you speak to what those changes were? And what motivated those proposals?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, you’re talking about the modernization of the migratory bird regulations in Canada which has been kind of an ongoing exercise over the past decade or so. A few years back, we proposed a bunch of changes to bring our regulations up to date and to essentially get rid of some irritants that we had run across over the years. One of the important changes we had to make to the regulations was to acknowledge indigenous rights in Canada. Our regulations were written a 100 years ago or more. So, things change over time and the regulations really hadn’t kept up with a lot of those changes. So, there are proposals right now to formally recognize indigenous rights in the migratory bird regulations, there are some kind of minor housekeeping changes. I mean, the regulations have been reorganized and rewritten to a point – or at least the proposed regulations – they haven’t been approved or enacted. But there are some interesting proposals, I think, for hunters, and one of the things we recognized is that, we do have liberal bag limits, we do have abundant waterfowl populations, and some hunters harvest a lot of birds. And the regulations that we have in place don’t always make it easy for hunters to be in possession of, and transport, legally harvested migratory birds. So, one of the things that we’ve proposed is that we not do away with possession limits, we’re going to maintain possession limits, but we are proposing that as long as hunters preserve their birds, once those birds are preserved in some way, that will signal those –
Ramsey Russell: Frozen.
Jim Leafloor: Frozen is one possibility, cooked or smoked, or made into sausage – made into a product and frozen – preserved in a way that they’ll be edible at a future date, for example or they’re used for taxidermy.
Ramsey Russell: Prepare for future consumption.
Jim Leafloor: Or taxidermy. Yeah, so the intent here is to make it easier for hunters to transport meat and to keep the birds they harvest, but without some of the older regulations restricting them. So, for example, on the books right now, we have labeling requirements. Once you harvest a bird and it’s packaged up, if you want to ship it or if you want to give it away, there are certain labeling requirements that can be quite onerous. And we’ve proposed that once again when those birds are preserved, we remove the requirement for a label unless that bird is going to be – or actually no, it’s not even when it’s given away – once the bird is preserved, it will no longer require a label. And you’ll be able to transport preserved birds without keeping a head or a wing attached, which is sometimes difficult if you’re a snow goose hunter, for example, and you’re hunting snow geese in the spring, and you shoot 50 of them having to keep a wing attached to those carcasses can make it very difficult to actually transport that number of geese. You need big coolers, bigger vehicle.
Ramsey Russell: I hunt. I started my trip up here with some my newbie buddies, I call them, and that was a big chore every day was to breast in those birds leaving a wing intact. That’s bigger sacks, more sacks, bigger suitcases to bring all that stuff home with that wing attached, it’s an inconvenience at best.
Jim Leafloor: So, I guess it would be wise, I guess to caution everyone that these are rules that apply in Canada but they do not necessarily apply in the U.S.
Ramsey Russell: Not yet. I mean, I would welcome anybody from US Fish and Wildlife Service. I wonder if there – because I’ve not heard of any discussions of any modernizations of some of these laws down in the U.S. and really, as a U.S. hunter that does sometimes bring some meat home, you all’s rules won’t apply when it hits that border. I mean, not yet. So, it’d be fine for transport in Canada but the minute I came to the U.S., boom, I’m right back where I started. I’d be illegal.
The Ethics of Consuming What You’ve Hunted
We want to give hunters tools that will allow them to better use, and transport, and gift the birds that they harvest, but at the same time we want to make sure that they’re not wasted.
Jim Leafloor: You want to make some inquiries before you do that.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely, you’d better. And I just say don’t do it. What made you come up with this idea of making it more convenient and for the hunters? Is it a way to increase hunter participation or just encourage hunters to become more active in hunting?
Jim Leafloor: Well, I think part of the motivation was that in some cases we are hoping that hunters will increase their harvests and we have attempted to use hunters to regulate the size of some of our populations. So over-abundant white geese, for example, we’re harvesting in the spring, we have very liberal bag limits essentially year round and we’re encouraging hunters take more and more of these birds, but we’re not necessarily giving them all the tools they need to be able to transport them and use them. So our main concern with the regulations is that the birds are not wasted, that’s another aspect that we’re proposing is, we never really had a federal wastage law in the past. That’s not written into the regulations in Canada. There are provincial regulations that prohibit wastage of migratory birds, but federally, we didn’t actually have an explicit regulation for that. So that’s part and parcel of the changes that we’re proposing. We want to give hunters tools that will allow them to better use, and transport, and gift the birds that they harvest, but at the same time we want to make sure that they’re not wasted.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. One of the basic tenets of hunting is consuming what you hunt. And I had one of my newfie buddies again, articulate when I asked, what’s the difference in a Canadian hunter versus American hunter? Just had that question. What do you think? He says, we hunt for meat. I mean, they make a run for snow geese because it’s fun to shoot, but they love those fall snow geese and they want to shoot a bunch and they want to bring them home. And boy, they got some great recipes for cooking them too.
Jim Leafloor: That’s a big part of the reason I hunt. I mean, there’s nothing better to me than a fat duck, or a spring snow goose, Ross’s goose.
Ramsey Russell: I really think these fall birds up here and that’s just – I hate the word “sky carp” – I love snow geese. I’ll just say, I like snow geese, especially the ones in Canada in the fall and the spring. I think I told you earlier, I’ll swap you 5 Canada’s for every snow.
Jim Leafloor: I’ve pretty much given up on Canada’s personally. I’ve had my fill of them, I think, I’m leaving it to the younger generation to take over in the harvesting of Canada’s and I would much prefer to spend my time chasing snow geese.
Ramsey Russell: I would too. That has become the reason. Now look, my favorite goose is the next one that bucks up in the decoy, but I really am enamored with snow geese up here in the fall, in Canada the birds are coming off the Arctic, you’ve got a lot of gray birds and you got a lot of adult birds that forgot about getting shot at a few months ago and they just come, they come in and do what they’re supposed to do and I love it, man. And I like to hunt them, I like to work them, I like to see them when those white birds line up and start back flipping and coming in, you know things are fixing to get dirty and they’re just beautiful. It’s something about the spectacle of being under that much waterfowl.
Jim Leafloor: And the sound.
Ramsey Russell: The sound.
Jim Leafloor: The sound to me is – the first geese here in the spring here are always Canada geese, but there’s something special about snow geese when they come back and same in the fall. That’s one of the things I always look forward to.
How Have Goose Numbers Changed Over the Years & How Has that Affected the Season?
And so there are still Canada geese there, but you’re right, it’s not in the same traditional migratory season that they’re used to seeing from the 50’s and 60’s.
Ramsey Russell: Speaking of spring goose hunting, you all have now got a Canada goose season up here. Talk about that a little bit Jim. That’s very interesting.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, the same regulation that allows for spring harvest of snow geese, it’s called an overabundance regulation. Whenever we have game bird populations that we feel are too high, not necessarily just numerically too high, but they’re causing damage to either habitats or something we value ecologically, it could be crops, it could be almost anything that people don’t want to see damaged to that extent. And we’ve had kind of varying success I would say on a white geese. I think overabundance regulations have been helpful in regulating the number of greater snow geese. I’m not really sure whether we’ve done a lot with Ross’ geese, mid-continent snow geese, we found out pretty quickly that we just don’t have enough hunters to regulate their numbers.
Ramsey Russell: Even now? Even 20 something years later? Because it seems to me that, I can remember 1998, I was 10, I got to sit into some meetings when they were scratching their heads going, how are we going to get people to hunt these birds? I’m just making this number up. But it seems to me to be a billion dollar industry has emerged in decoys and equipment and trailers and guides and outfitters and lots of folks now chasing spring snow geese from Texas, clear on up in here to Canada and it’s still not enough hunters.
Jim Leafloor: Well, I mean, when it comes to Canada geese here in Canada our options are pretty limited. We already have a season that starts September 1st and that’s kind of the opening date that’s specified in the migratory bird regulations, so without an overabundance regulation we’re limited to hunting from September 1st until it freezes. Our bag limits are pretty high and a lot of people harvest Canada geese. Our harvest has been increasing, but the higher you put the bag limits, the less impact you actually have on harvest. I mean, hunters can only harvest so many birds and after a while, it’s not the bag limit or the season that’s dictating that it’s just hunters have had their fill.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, their freezers are full.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. So, really one of the few options we have left with an overabundance regulation is the spring harvest. And in southern Manitoba we just implemented that, I believe last spring, what is that spring of 2021? Yeah, it was the first season that we had for overabundant Canada geese in southern Manitoba.
Ramsey Russell: Are non-residents able to partake of that?
Jim Leafloor: Normally they would. I don’t think we had any non-residents last year.
Ramsey Russell: Last year because of COVID. But would the bag limit still be 5 in the spring for nonresidents?
Jim Leafloor: I believe the bag limit is still 5 or – actually, I can’t even remember what our regulations are, I didn’t hunt in that season this year – but I believe it was 8 for residents and 5 for non-residents but I’d have to check that.
Ramsey Russell: When does that season run March, April?
Jim Leafloor: This year it ran the month of March. And the reason why we’re kind of limited to March is because there are two other populations of Canada geese that migrate through Manitoba that are not over-abundant. So, one of them is cackling geese, a lookalike species, and we have to make sure that we’re not harvesting those because they have not been declared –
Ramsey Russell: You look for the giants.
Jim Leafloor: We’re looking for the giants. The temperate nesters, the residents.
Ramsey Russell: All those ones that you see out here in outside Winnipeg.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Those are the ones that are in the cities and the ones that are doing a lot of agricultural damage and ones that are getting hit by cars along the highway – those are the birds that almost anyone in Manitoba would understand have grown to a level that requires some type of control.
Ramsey Russell: And they’re everywhere all the way down to Mississippi. Which makes me wonder, I’ll ask you this question. My grandfather, his generation back in the 60s, 50s, 40s down in Mississippi, they wanted geese, it’s some of my favorite pictures and artifacts are pictures of my grandfather south of Lake Ferguson on the Mississippi River hunting geese. Some of the records of what they called Goose Camp which was just collecting a man that pitched in a budget and bought 5lb of sugar, and two bottles of booze, and groceries, and went and dug in on sandbars. And by the 70’s he was going up to Cairo, Illinois to get his goose fix and now Cairo, Illinois is basically void of Canada goose like it was back then. I’m assuming those were interiors, what happened to that population of goose?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, it’s interesting. A lot of southern states no longer have that traditional migration of birds that nest in the north and then winter far south. At the same time populations of temperate nest in Canada geese in all of those southern states have actually increased. And so there are still Canada geese there, but you’re right, it’s not in the same traditional migratory season that they’re used to seeing from the 50’s and 60’s.
Ramsey Russell: Why do you think that is? What changed? Like for example, last year I hunted the lost flyway near Decatur, Alabama by Wheeler Refuge, and we went to this old barn, and there were just piles of these old silhouette decoys decades old that used to sit out in those fields from the entire season. And there’s a line of trucks backed up, when you got your 2 bird limits, you got out cause there’s somebody waiting in line to go shoot those geese, and man that’s long been gone.
Jim Leafloor: Well, when I worked in Northern Ontario, I actually visited the Wheeler Refuge in Alabama and on a couple of occasions I gave presentations to the refuge staff and others who were there to hear about what had happened to Canada geese. And I think the biggest part of the story is that their migration routes have become shorter. I mean, geese are able to get everything they need, open water and food much farther north today than they used to be. I’m not exactly sure of all those reasons there, historically there was a bit of a debate about whether geese with that Deep South migrating tradition, whether they were selectively over harvested or whether they simply started to shorten the migration. Personally, I think it’s just the migration routes that have changed and I don’t believe that –
Ramsey Russell: Probably in response to a changing landscape since then.
Jim Leafloor: For sure. I mean, you hear more and more about populations in northern states that actually don’t move. People refer to them a lot of times as resident Canada geese and I don’t think there are too many examples where that’s actually the case. I mean, when severe winter weather comes, they eventually move. And most Canada goose populations that I’ve looked at, still have some kind of migration southward during the winter months.
Ramsey Russell: Well, there was something I heard and I know I’m not remember this story completely correct – but we’re talking about giant Canada geese that’s my recollection that at one time was thought to be extinct. There was a population coming, I think, from Manitoba to somewhere in Minnesota, Rochester, and somebody discovered them in the 60’s. Whatever, 10 dozen breeding pairs and began to capture and rear them. And it’s my understanding the great big Canada geese we’re seeing up here in southern Canada, New York, Minnesota, the Dakotas is that genetic origin. Man, if they were overwintering in Minnesota, Rochester Minnesota, they weren’t ever migrating any further south. So they did become residents.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, I mean, I think there was a time in the 1950s, when giant Canada Geese were thought to be extinct. But if you go back through historical records, you’ll find quite a bit of evidence that these birds never completely disappeared from the landscape and that there were remnant flocks throughout the flyways. But in the 50s and 60s and 70s, there was a concerted effort by population managers to grow these populations. So, there were very restrictive hunting seasons for Canada geese. There were translocation programs, there were captive breeding programs. A lot was done to encourage the growth and redistribution of Canada geese that had been almost removed from the land. And at a certain point, these populations just became just like snow geese. I mean, they benefited from all the things that we’ve done to the landscape, they have refuges, they have super abundant food from agricultural sources, they have lots of open water, they have area golf courses, places where they’re not hunted and they can evade hunters successfully in cities and all kinds of other refuge areas that whether they’re actually sanctuaries or in some cases, just counties or municipalities that don’t allow the discharge of firearms, they kind of become de facto sanctuaries and Canada geese are very good at finding those places and exploiting them.
Ramsey Russell: They really are, aren’t they?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, remarkable. They’re taking over the landscape really.
What Could the Drought do to Continental Populations of Waterfowl?
I think we’re going to see lower populations, we’re going to see decreases in harvest, we might see continuing loss of hunters.
Ramsey Russell: Jim is a scientist, we’re in the midst of a drought hopefully it won’t be long term, although we’ve been riding the cup of about a 2 decade wet cycle and here we are out here, we hunters and cash and checks but because of COVID, because of interagency cooperation really hadn’t done much bookkeeping. Are you concerned? I mean, are you concerned about what the drought could do to continental populations of waterfowl? Are you concerned, as a scientist, about existing harvest in the absence of any surveys? I mean, I don’t know.
Jim Leafloor: Well, I think there’s a couple of things here. Am I concerned? I’m not overly concerned. And the reason why I’m not overly concerned is that we’ve seen this cycle before. Here at this spot in the 1980s, mid-1980s, we were going through a serious drought; mallard numbers were at their all-time low. The North American Waterfowl Management Plan was established that year as the blueprint for getting the habitat in shape and bringing back our waterfowl populations. We have a lot of experience, we have a lot of long term monitoring data, and in Canada we have a lot fewer hunters, and I think it’s predictable what’s going to happen with the drought. I think we’re going to see lower populations, we’re going to see decreases in harvest, we might see continuing loss of hunters. But I think in general, this is all predictable because we’ve been through it before and I don’t think that we’re going to see duck populations bounce back from a serious drought until we have a return to better nesting conditions. You need production to drive these populations up and to get production, you need water.
Ramsey Russell: That leads me to a discussion we had talking about water about the future of hunting. And we could talk about a lot of different things in the future of hunting. But what have you been – some of the information or some of the forecast you’ve seen over the next 50-100 years on a global scale because what we were talking about earlier was, how we hunters try to compress everything to some of our experience into a season, you know what I’m saying and we humans kind of into a lifetime. A lot of management going on, forest management that I was in, we’re trying to make these processes and compress them into a human lifespan, which it’s your whole life, but at the end of time, geologically it’s nothing.
Jim Leafloor: Well, I was involved in a conversation about that recently where I was saying, you talk about change and the way the climate is changing. Right here where we’re sitting used to be covered in a sheet of ice a mile thick and it wasn’t that long ago. 12,000 years ago, a big chunk of Canada and the northern us was covered in ice and in evolutionary time, geological time that is just the blink of an eye. But for us and thinking on those timescales isn’t going to do us a lot of good. So, we do our best to make things as good as we can for waterfowl populations. We spend money on habitat, we do what we can to enact regulations that protect populations when they need it. And yeah, that’s about the best we can do.
Ramsey Russell: That’s all we can do.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. And sometimes that’s not going to be enough. We were doing all these things in the 1980s, we were protecting habitat, we had refuges, we restricted our harvest and there was a period of time when duck populations just couldn’t respond because the habitat just wasn’t there. The water that they needed, the productivity of the wetlands they used wasn’t there, but once those suitable conditions returned, then we saw a tremendous response from the waterfowl, from the duck populations in particular.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what drives, it’s all about the water.
Jim Leafloor: Well, I mean, there’s obviously other factors, I mean, agriculture has a big role to play in how the landscape looks as well, but water is key for sure.
What is the Value of Hunting to the Waterfowl Conservation Effort?
They provide all those practical things for monitoring, and at the same time, they spend their money doing what they can to help ducks, helping organizations that protect habitats and provide wetland habitats that otherwise might not exist.
Ramsey Russell: You talk a lot about the decline of hunters in Canada and the same thing is happening according to Fish and Wildlife service in the United States. As a very long term biologist and research scientist, what is the value of hunting, of hunters, to the conservation effort in waterfowl?
Jim Leafloor: Yeah. Hunters are probably one of the more significant aspects of our job. I mean, they provide us with a ton of information in the form of band recoveries. We send out hunter questionnaire surveys and ask them how many ducks or how many geese they shot. They send in their wings and tails for the parts survey so that we can estimate how many birds they shot and combine this with banding data so that we can actually estimate the size of populations. They provide all those practical things for monitoring, and at the same time, they spend their money doing what they can to help ducks, helping organizations that protect habitats and provide wetland habitats that otherwise might not exist. But one of the things I like most about hunters is that they’re very passionate about waterfowl. And a lot of times I think hunters are the ones that flag issues for us. They’re the people who are out there, who are paying attention to waterfowl all the time.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of those issues?
Jim Leafloor: Well, I mean one of the most vivid examples I can think of was when robot ducks came along in the late 1990s. Hunters and outfitters were coming to flyway meetings, and at the time they were very concerned about the impact that this device was going to have on harvest rates, and they were begging us to regulate it and make sure that it wasn’t going to do damage.
Ramsey Russell: But a lot of these brown ducks up here, pintails I’ve heard in particular, I mean they’re highly susceptible to Mojo ducks. So it must be absolutely just decimating populations.
Jim Leafloor: Well, you would think that, but I’ve seen a lot of days when a robot duck, it doesn’t work its magic either. There are limits, and one of the things that we monitor of course is harvest rates. So with banding data, we’re marking a representative sample of the population so that each year we can detect when things change. And if robot ducks were going to have a significant impact on the population, then we would expect to see a dramatic increase in harvest rates, which is something we never did really see. So initially, I think there were some states, some jurisdictions that outlawed the use of robot ducks. But as the data came in and succeeding years, there really was no evidence that they were as devastating as was once feared.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, when you just look at the trends, and you had said earlier, you’re looking at harvest rates, and changes with and without, it’s been pretty consistent over the last 60 years, it’s just consistent harvest. And again, hunter participation or number of hunters being the driving force on what’s killing the duck.
Jim Leafloor:I mean for us in Canada it’s very clear. We look at the trends and duck harvest over time and it exactly mirrors the trend in hunter numbers in Canada. So, the number of people that are spending their time out chasing ducks has a much bigger influence on how many are harvested than does the bag limit or the use of robot ducks or really any number of other factors.
Ramsey Russell: Yes sir. Jim, any parting shots you’d like to share with anybody before we sign off?
Jim Leafloor: Just that this has been a blast, I’d love to do this again sometime.
Ramsey Russell: Love to have you on. We got a lot more to talk about next time.
Jim Leafloor: Yeah, I’ll keep a list. I think there’s lots of things we could cover that hunters would be interested in hearing about.
Ramsey Russell: Yes sir. Folks, you all have been listening to Jim Leafloor. Head of aquatic unit, head of game birds here for Canadian Wildlife Service. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. See you next time.