Delta Waterfowl’s John Devney and Ramsey run through a flurry of interesting waterfowl-related topics. Now-versus-then habitat conditions, pintail productivity, an ever-changing landscape, predator communities, and much more are covered. Boom or bust? It’s all about more ducks, right?

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Ramsey Russell: If I have a late spring this year. It seems like to me, I’m driving up here, it’s 45° and there’s snow banks knee deep on the side of the road. You all having a late spring? Is this normal?

John Devney: No, it’s terrible late.

Ramsey Russell: But last time I came through, last fall, coming through the prairies, coming through Dakota, coming through Canada, it was bone dry. Cracks, I felt like I drop a shotgun shell and it hit China. This has got to be helping the waterfowl productivity.

John Devney: It is. But let’s back up, Ramsey, because to give you and your listeners a sense of how we have the great years and how this year, I think is going to be pretty good, but I’m a little bit worried about it. So, if we think about prairie wetlands and you’ve seen it, you’ve driven around, you’ve seen what the ducks are doing right now, and they’re not on lakes, they’re not even on big slews, they’re on sheetwater, right?

Ramsey Russell: Right.

John Devney: They’re on temporary and seasonal ponds. So what ensures that we have water in those small ponds is an aggregate of a few things. One is you want a good frost seal in the fall, which as you pointed out last year, we did not have in many parts of the prairies, it was really dry. And we had a great spring last year, had all that late snow, we had really, I think quite good water conditions. I think we probably had pretty good reproductive success, good recruitment coming out of the prairies, especially out of the eastern Dakotas. But man, after the 4th of July last year, it shut off. We couldn’t buy rain. We had a big rain on the 4th and we had none through the rest of the fall. So, if you’re a duck guy and you’re sitting up here on the prairies, you want that big frost seal, you want a lot of moisture content in the soil, so in the spring it puts a cap on that soil and that water runs off the top of that cap and fills basins. So we didn’t have that this year. Now what we did have this year is one hell of a lot of snow. I mean, in Bismarck, visiting today second snowiest winter ever and we only missed the record by like 0.6 inches, right? So we had over 100 inches snow. Snow started early, started November, lots of snow in November, lots of snow in December, not much in December. And then February, March and early April were pretty snowy so we piled up a hell of a lot of snow, but a bunch of that snow fell in November and December like I just said, January was for this part of the world relatively mild, not mild by anybody else’s definition, but pretty mild by ours. And over the course of the winter when you get those early snows, you’re losing moisture out of that snow pack. You lose it to evaporation, early snow, cold weather snows don’t have high moisture content. So, you got a big pile but you don’t have that much moisture. Go ahead.

Ramsey Russell: No, go ahead.

John Devney: And so, I think what, even though we had to suffer, moved out a lot of snow in November and December, it was really those later snows that put us in the condition and have the kind of water conditions we have right now. Thing that worries me a little bit is this particular part of the world can go from drought to deluge in 10 minutes. And last year we saw it, we had all that snow late, ran off, habitat looked great, but poof, it just disappeared. Driving around before the 4th of July, out training dogs, running around looking at breeding ducks, man, there was water everywhere. And then I drove around and started thinking about dove season in August and I drove around, I’m like, what happened? And it’s because we didn’t have the depth in those wet soils, it was kind of a surface level deal, a superficial deal. And I’m a little concerned we may be in the same spot next year. Now listen, we keep getting rains, keep those basins full, we’ll be fine. But at least right now, it looks great right now, but my concern is it’s a touch superficial.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, I am at Delta Waterfowl headquarters meeting today with Mr. John Devney. John, what’s so interesting, I hear so much that you really don’t want rain up here in the prairies as much as you want snow, the snows matter for reasons you’re hinting at right now. But as I drive along, it’s 45°, it’s warm, it’s beautiful. 50° in the day and still, it’s knee deep snow drifts out there on the sides of the highways and out in the fields and as you look all around it, you don’t want to stop Char dog out with your crocs on, because little pools of water everywhere and it’s just gently melting, that’s how this prairie works, isn’t it?

John Devney: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: You don’t need a 5 inch rain, you need snow that over a period of time will slowly melt and seep in and saturate those soils and then more snow melt coming behind it and then the summer rains and spring rains come up in. That’s how the prairie functions, isn’t it?

John Devney: Yeah. And again, it goes back to that frost seal. If we have a good frost seal in the fall, that means every drop of water ends up where we want it, which is in those basins. In a year like this, where we had dry soils, a lot of that stuff went right into the dirt, before it had a chance to move. Now, I think this is going to be a year where things look pretty good, I drove around on Saturday and Sunday with my boys and saw temporary water in places you like to see it, it tells you it’s wet. Saw other areas were kind of dry-ish. The other thing about these wetland systems up here is you’ve got wetland systems that are fed by groundwater and then you have wetland systems that are filled by runoff. And if you drive around, if you think about this, when you’re driving up on your trip to Saskatoon, what you’re going to see, you’re going to see places that are wet. You’re going to drive over a hill and you’re going to see a wetland that’s the exact same size, exact same class, you’d say and it’s going to be dry because that dude is fed by groundwater while the other one was fed by surface water and runoff. And so, I think right now things look pretty good, especially in eastern Dakota, southwestern Manitoba, I think the western prairies are still pretty dry and we’re going to need some good rains to really sustain that system, those small prairie Butland systems running through the course of the breeding season. Because what we know is the super flights of ducks we get when we send lots and lots of young ducks is when that nesting season is elongated.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve never thought about that before.

Wet Seasonal Basins and Duckling Survival

Most of the parts of the prairie are going to have big chunks of it, are going to have 90% nest loss to predators.

John Devney: You’ve talked about it with our staff for a long time, we have far higher predation rates on nests than we historically did. Most of the parts of the prairie are going to have big chunks of it, are going to have 90% nest loss to predators. So, the one thing that can overwhelm that and tip it in the duck’s favor is you take a female mallard, she comes up here and it starts wet and it stays wet, she may nest 5 times. Well, now the mathematical odds are on her side rather than on the predator side. And so, when you get these years where we sustain those temporary and seasonal wetlands through the nesting season, one, you get all the ducks in the right places, we want ducks in the prairies and the kind of conditions you’re seeing right now will do that. We want to sustain that for renesting. And then the 3rd thing we want to see happen is the duckling survival is highly correlated with wet seasonal. And you’re going to need those rains in April, May and June now, May and June to sustain those seasonal basins having water in them, because that’s where we have really crazy high duckling survival.

Ramsey Russell: Why is predation so bad today? I think, I know the answer, but I want to hear you say it. Why is predation so bad?

John Devney: Couple of reasons. So, you’ve changed two things. You’ve changed the agricultural landscape from what it was when Lewis and Clark came and –

Ramsey Russell: The more agriculture than short grass prairie.

John Devney: Exactly. We converted this landscape, a lot of this landscape is highly productive soils and to build food security in this country, we converted a lot of grassland to cropland. And so that’s changed the sort of architecture of the landscape. There’s less intact nesting habitat for ducks to avoid predation. Number 2, is we’ve changed predator community. With that change, we move out on this landscape, we start farming it, we deal with the big predators, we don’t like having around, right? Wolves and grizzly bears. That’s created a niche and opportunity for these small meso predators raccoons, skunks, red fox that are really good at hunting that available nesting habitat.

Ramsey Russell: You’re a mind reader. That’s the next question I was going to lead into is about which predators were the worst nest depredators and it’s those meso predators as you call them, the racoons, the skunks, the foxes, excuse me, the raccoons. And just yesterday, I had a great conversation with a guy down in Texas who was talking about his chickens with a company worked for, and they are just having fits with the raccoons. And what he said was, the real problem is not the raccoons, the real problem is the coyotes. He said, for whatever reason, modern America wants to shoot the hell out of these coyote and they eat the coyotes and historically, they’re all kind of mad at each other. Coyotes really aren’t the problem with duck nest, it’s the raccoons and opossums and the primary predator that replaced the wolves is now being shot for sport 24/7, 365 and now we got more raccoons, it felt like than they did historically. That’s crazy.

John Devney: Yeah, well, and I think if you look at what happened in the prairies, there was some work done by really good scientists at northern prairie back in the 90s, I think. And they looked at coyote dominated versus red fox dominated landscape. So, you got two dogs out there on the countryside, right? And the big dog always wins, we’ve known that for a long time. Coyotes have bigger home ranges, they’re not particularly good. I mean, yeah, they’re eating the odd duck nest, but they’re mousers and doing that sort of thing. And the coyotes will keep red fox out of their territories. Now, the challenge is when you take coyotes out of the system, now you can have a much higher density of red fox. Red fox have smaller home ranges, which means they’re probably foraging more intently, they’re also killing females. The same set of studies that were showing back in the 80s and early 90s, red fox were killing 900,000 adult ducks a year. Now that’s not the case, well, I don’t think it’s the case today because one, I think the CRP program in the 80s and 90s, and even today has created sort of a coyote range expansion.

Ramsey Russell: Right.

John Devney: And we lost a lot of fox to mange back in the late 90s. And so, what’s happened is this landscape doesn’t have the foxes on it, especially here in the eastern Dakotas like we used to. And if you see a red fox, you can see it on the edge of a farmyard, you see it in the highway right away on the edge of a small town, because that red fox knows it’s going to be persecuted from coyotes, if it’s out everywhere else. And as you pointed out in this part of the world, yeah, there’s guys shooting coyotes recreationally. Coyote’s worst enemy is a guy that’s a farmer rancher that’s got a rifle in the back of the truck. You don’t see a lot of coyotes standing still, because ranchers don’t want them around or their herd or calves and coyotes get shot. And so here in the Dakotas you had this confluence in 90s lots of water, lots of CRP, red fox fall out of the system, that’s why we had the bumper crops the ducks we had in the 90s is had just booms in production through those values, all sort of bundled up in one space and time. Now as we lose CRP, as we lose native grass, the question is when do red fox come back into the system in earnest the way they were in 80s and early 90s? You have to go looking for red fox, our trappers have to go looking for red fox. There are not a lot of red fox in most of these landscapes anymore, especially in the US prairies. And so that’s the confluence of how this system works, right? But going back to the water situation, you get those wet years, starts wet, stays wet, ducks can mathematically overwhelm predation. And those are the years we create super fall flights of ducks and we’re putting lots of ducks on the wing, hunters are having great success.

Ramsey Russell: What about now, John? Because let’s just walk through time just briefly. Short grass prairie, converted to agriculture, the inception of CRP, now a big sucking sound, much less CRP, now we’re back to predominantly agriculture. You see what I’m saying, the habitat continues to change, it seems to be predominantly agriculture now. How much CRP have we lost and why did we lose it? Because that seemed to be the glory days boom of a band aid on habitat loss for production with CRP, but we’ve lost a bunch of it.

John Devney: I mean, we’ve lost probably, I don’t know what the numbers are, nationwide, we’re at the lowest levels of CRP we’ve been since the late 80s.

What is the Conservation Reserve Program?

Ramsey Russell: Wow. When it was invented?

John Devney: Yeah. And the program was just starting to grow. And listen, war in Ukraine, high commodity prices, producers, remember that CRP ground was in cropland. It had to make economic sense for a farmer to enroll it in CRP. When prices are high, the only stuff that’s going in CRP is the stuff that’s really hard to farm. Because the rest of stuff doesn’t make the market signals in the world for, I don’t care whether we’re talking about wheat, soybeans, corn, those market signals are telling producers, produce and producers are going to respond to the that. That’s been sort of the wax and weighing of CRP follows global commodity prices. That just is what it is. The one thing, CRP was really important, but it was the wetland resource that really drove the system in the 90s, without those small wetlands, I could take you to landscapes that have a hell of a lot of grass.

Ramsey Russell: So where do they go? What are we talking about here? I don’t follow exactly.

John Devney: If you don’t have the wetlands to attract the ducks to a landscape

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

John Devney: You can’t have the duck response.

Ramsey Russell: So, were they tiled? Were they drained?

John Devney: No. I mean, our wetland resource, especially in Canada, is under constant pressure. Again, because of the same economic signals we just talked about with farmers and CRP. But if you don’t have the wetland resource, I could take you to landscapes here in North Dakota that have tons of grass, I can take you down here, southern Emmons County and show you grass upon grass upon grass, we could do the same thing in western North Dakota. Yeah, ducks would be successful there, but there aren’t many ducks there because there’s not enough pair habitat.

Ramsey Russell: Right.

John Devney: And those landscapes wasn’t because it was necessarily drained, it’s just that there were never any wetlands there, there were very few wetlands there. So, grass without wetlands doesn’t get you many ducks, you got to have that wetland resource. I think when we talked about, we talked about it, everybody talked about it, that duck boom about around CRP, because it turned so many landscapes productive from where they were unproductive previously. But I think what we blew past and I think what we’re very conscious of right now and I think the whole waterfowl management community is conscious of, without that wetland resource, we could have 80 million acres of CRP and we can’t make ducks.

Ramsey Russell: So, what do we do? How do we get more wetlands resource out here?

John Devney: Well, we got to take care of what we got. I mean, you want to have an unpleasant conversation, you almost can’t pay a guy enough money to restore wetlands and cropland, if that land use is going to be producing wheat, corn, soy, flax, whatever it’s going to produce. If a wetland has been drained, he ain’t putting it back in. There’s a reason he drained it. And so, I think the real focus is on retaining what we have today to make sure we don’t lose anymore. Because we know this system as big as it is, talk about how big the prairies are, between Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Minnesota, Iowa, Montana and the two Dakotas, we have the wetland resource to continue to have big fall flights of ducks. But what we don’t want to do is lose a bunch more of that. Because as you’re seeing, as you’re driving around and you have the benefit that a lot of your listeners won’t ever have to see what these ducks are doing right now on little itty bitty wet spots and crop fields. That’s the engine that drives the duck fast.

Ramsey Russell: John, since the duck boom, how much wetlands have we lost? Is there any idea? Do you all know? Does anybody know?

John Devney: Well, we’ll have a better sense. Fish & Wildlife Services in the midst of doing another status and trends report on wetlands, be probably due here in the next year or two. We know that the annual loss rate in high value landscapes in Canada of small wetlands and croplands about 0.88% a year.

Ramsey Russell: With all the time and money that we remaining waterfowl hunters are putting into ducks, we’re still losing ground, that’s a fact. And it’s like, it’s disappointing me, it’s almost like we can’t turn the tide.

John Devney: Here’s what turns the tide.

Ramsey Russell: Let’s hear it.

John Devney: Public policy turns the tide.

Ramsey Russell: How so?

John Devney: Well, I mean, we just talked about how big that landscape is, we’re talking about tens of millions of acres. Ducks Unlimited is a big organization, they don’t have infinite resources.

Ramsey Russell: Right.

Wetland Protection Efforts by Fish & Wildlife Services

Ducks Unlimited is doing good easement work, we started the easement program in the late 90s in Canada, but it’s swamp buster that came in in the 1985 farm bill that said, thou shalt not drain wetlands and receive federal crop support from the American taxpayer.

John Devney: Delta Waterfowl is a bigger organization, it was 20 years ago, we don’t have infinite resources. So, the way to influence the amount of wetlands we have on the landscape, I think, is largely a public policy play. That doesn’t mean, Fish & Wildlife Services is doing great work, they protected over a 3rd of the vulnerable wetlands in the US Prairies through their easement program, Ducks Unlimited is doing good easement work, we started the easement program in the late 90s in Canada, but it’s swamp buster that came in in the 1985 farm bill that said, thou shalt not drain wetlands and receive federal crop support from the American taxpayer. And we’re working with DU and TRCP got that working wetlands program going in the 2018 farm bill to pay these guys through USDA to conserve those small, temporary and seasonal wetlands. The ask we have in front of USDA right now, I was in Washington DC having conversations with the highest level of our government $50 million a year. $50 million a year will protect about 56% of the remaining small wetlands in the US prairies.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve just got this sense and it’s just based on personal experience, it’s not scientific as I look back at the last 20 years, that despite everything, the time and money that we hunters are collectively putting into it and have created this unimaginably successful relative to the rest of the World conservation program with our state and federal agencies, universities, NGOs like Delta Waterfowl, it’s unbelievable, it’s unrivaled anywhere else in the world and yet you just said we’re still losing habitat. And I see it expressed in a lot of different ways, it’s insurmountable, we hunters alone cannot fix this program. We’re a thin green line trying to hold the wall, keep what we’ve got and it still ain’t happening. Really, what we don’t need is no net loss wetland to borrow from Daddy Bush, quote, “We don’t need no net loss, we need net gain is what we need”. Well, that’s what’s going to make us happy. How I see this expressed, John, how I see this expressed is the perception of anybody, which is everybody listening, that ever hunts public land in the United States, anywhere from California to Mississippi and beyond, you see it, this perception that there’s too many hunters, there’s more hunters, never mind what the duck stamp sales are saying, no matter what US Fish & Wildlife data saying that there’s less hunters than ever before, we are seeing it on the landscape when we go to the boat ramp at 4:30 in the morning, we are seeing it expressed like never before. And there’s really not more hunters, they’re just becoming more highly distillate in the last remaining places that we can go and hunt.

John Devney: There’s no doubt about that. The reason we care about those small wetlands in the prairies is a concept called carrying capacity. You remember this when you were at Mississippi State, right? So, the reason we need lots of small wetlands rather than one big one is because ducks are territorial. So, if you drive around and you’re looking at these ponds and you’re looking at ducks that have actually settled, not ducks that are moving through, you watch where ducks are settled, watch those ponds, because what you’re going to see is a pair of mallards and a pair of gadwall and a pair of blue wings and a pair of spoonies, okay? You’re not going to see 4 pair of mallards on that pond, you’re not going to see 4 pair of spoonies on that pond. So just as ducks are territorial and carrying capacity is a thing, I think one thing, I said when we had the benefit of all that water and all that CRP and all the good days and the boom years, the late 90s and early 2000s, then again, I’d say from 2010 to about 2013, we kind of forgot about wetlands. We’re talking so much about cover, but I think we got to start talking about carrying capacity for hunters. Because what’s going to be meaningful to a duck hunter isn’t that there’s 15 million mallards or 12 million mallards in the breeding population or 3.5 million pintail or what the kind of production was in North Dakota or Saskatchewan or Ontario for that matter. What’s going to really matter is what’s my opportunity as Joe everyday duck hunter, to go out and enjoy duck hunting. And here I am, kid that grew up in Minnesota, we didn’t have great duck hunting, but we had lots of places to go. Now I have the benefit of living in North Dakota, which is great habitat and they have great duck hunting here, I had a crappy duck season last year, bud. I had a crappy duck season because the drought hurt us, the ducks were concentrated, the hunting pressure was concentrated and so that’s my example. Talk to a guy in Kansas without Cheyenne Bottoms going right? Or talk to a guy in Missouri without the duck parks being full of water or look at California with what they went through with drought. And if there’s a guy like John Devney that’s not getting up on a Saturday morning because he doesn’t feel like it’s going to be worthwhile for me, after what I’ve done for my entire life and I’m going to sit out a Saturday morning –

Ramsey Russell: That’s pretty discouraging, John.

John Devney: And I think – listen you can’t do anything about drought, Mother Nature shall provide it and shall taketh away. But when we think about it in the context, your part of the world, California, lots of parts of the world, my problem last year was a nature problem, wasn’t necessarily an access problem, although I’d say we have access problems here that we didn’t imagine we were going to have 25 years ago when I moved here. But where’s the average guy going to go duck hunt? And worked with our colleagues at Ducks Unlimited in the early stages of COVID because there’s lots of talk about infrastructure and did a data call DU through their channels, us through our channels and we found there was a $250 million deferred maintenance backlog on national wildlife refuges across the country, just on waterfowl stuff, pumps, levees, that sort of stuff. We did the same thing for state game management areas, over $600 million of deferred maintenance needs on those state owned assets. These are the places where guys like me that don’t own leases, don’t own land and fee title, not members of duck clubs, this is where they hunt. Not only do we have the infrastructure problem, the refuge systems lost about 25% of their full time staff. So not only can they not move water because their infrastructure is jacked up, they don’t have anybody to move the water anyways. They don’t have anybody to be out there disking moist soil units, fix dropping boards into water control structures, they’ve lost 25% of their people since 2010. And so, the very asset that’s so incredibly, probably one of the greatest legacies of American hunting is public lands. And if you’re an elk hunter and you wander around on BLM land, there’s places where it’s screwed up. But man, that stuffs intact.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

John Devney: But if you’re a guy that’s relying on a coastal refuge in Louisiana or the Theodore Roosevelt Complex in Mississippi or Bayou Meto in Arkansas, let’s not even get into the poor guys in the Atlantic Flyway. The place that those folks need to hunt isn’t in the condition that it. And I’m very worried that that is probably our next great challenge, right? So simultaneously, while we’re worried about managing small wetlands in the US prairies and Canadian prairies and while we’re worried about predation and duck production, the only reason we’re in this business, the only reason I’m in this business is to work for duck hunters. Yeah, there’s an intrinsic value to wetlands and there’s an intrinsic value to a mallard duck beyond somebody shooting it, that’s not my interest in it. I’m here working for duck hunters and how are we going to make sure that those public lands in the future are going to serve the public well. The Great American Outdoors act passed in 2020, signed by President Trump put $100 million a year into the refuge system. We’re 3 years in, we’re working right now with Fish & Wildlife Service, where’d you spend that money? How is it helping duck hunters? We’re going to have to do that work again. And we’ve got to find better ways to get money to the states to manage their public hunting areas, because these state and federal agencies, Ramsey, they’re in bad shape. They’re understaffed, they’re under resourced, everybody loves to be pissed off at them, but they got less people and less money than they did 25 years ago. And so, I think that’s going to be a big focus on my work for the rest of my career, I think. And it needs to be addressed because I think you’re right, if you’re the guy that’s in a public hunting area someplace and you’re crowded out and you’re not seeing any ducks, it’s hard for me to make the case that he should care about a 1/8th of an acre pothole in Stutsman County, North Dakota.

Ramsey Russell: You bring up a good point, John, ducks existing, just us all going back to the offices and going back to our lives and going back to baseball fields and going back to coffee shops or whatever hippies do, ducks existing is easy. We can rest confident that somewhere there’s mallards and pintails and green wings, but it’s beyond that, we want to hunt them.

John Devney: We want abundance.

Impact of Hunting on Duck and Goose Populations

Europe, for example, has lost 50% of its wild bird population. And even here in North America, we’re losing bird.

Ramsey Russell: And our want to hunt has created a model and a system very enviable around the world. I’m reminded of something I recently read, that bird numbers are declining worldwide, all bird numbers worldwide are in steep decline. Europe, for example, has lost 50% of its wild bird population. And even here in North America, we’re losing bird. I think all but about 12 geneses are in great decline, two notable exceptions to the decline of birds in North America are ducks and geese, because of what we’re doing. Holding that line, pushing that line, pushing that political agenda, our interest, the money and time we’re throwing at this resource is keeping it stable. But we need more and we need more access to them and we don’t have it. All you got to do is open up, go to Facebook, go to social media, travel around and talk to duck hunters and everybody sees it now. Some things never change, I was talking to Ryan Graves, a waterfowl historian, recently and he’s got a journal from back in 30s and 40s and the previous owner of that journal literally put one day going out duck hunting all those good years ago, his daily entry was, didn’t see shit.

John Devney: Right.

Ramsey Russell: And that happens in duck hunting anywhere you go.

John Devney: And we’re going to get drought, we’re going to have bad conditions, right?

Ramsey Russell: But it was comforting to me to see that an avid duck hunter that kept a journal back in the 30s and 40s, literally put didn’t see shit, that happens when you duck hunt. But we’re talking about long term, we’re talking about a greater abundance of everything else that goes into it and it’s worrisome to me sometimes man.

John Devney: Well, I think it is. And the other thing is –

Ramsey Russell: Pull your mic a little closer.

John Devney: At the same time, we’ve lost capacity to manage public lands. Guys that manage private lands are doing it better.

Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah.

John Devney: Right. I’m not going to blame anybody, we live in a capitalist system, I like people that are going out and being successful for themselves, a lot of those guys love to duck hunt. But those guys are managing better than they ever have. At the same time, the public lands are not being managed at the same way. And I’m not being mad at any state agency –

Ramsey Russell: It is what it is, but that is an excellent point. Because a lot of people that don’t have access to high quality private land are very critical of it. And I’ve always wondered, let’s just take Mississippi, for example, I know that our public land availability for waterfowl on WMAs and federal refuges, I can say insignificant is small relative to private land.

John Devney: Right.

Ramsey Russell: And private landowners are spending a lot of time and a lot of money to improve their little corner of the world, those ducks aren’t just living on that 500 acres.

John Devney: Right.

Ramsey Russell: It’s a part of a greater landscape.

John Devney: Right.

Ramsey Russell: Gosh, it’s like when I hear right now John, Joel Brice was on here recently and we were talking about Australia because he was talking to some of our Australian counterparts about the anti hunters and all this stuff going on down there and it dawned on him like holy cow, this could affect worldwide. This could be a worldwide domino effect, if Australia closes because of this movement. And what do I care? I mean, seriously, how does it affect Ramsey Russell that Australia closes duck hunting? It really doesn’t affect my duck hunt, I’m going to go out and shoot mallards in Mississippi and beyond. But at the same time, what interests me is this modern day thought that an overwhelming amount of people, even here in America, let alone Australia, consider us hunters to know the evil. My question is, who is going to manage, who’s going to hold that green line and who is going to continue to manage and put their time and the money into conservation, if not the hunters? Bring it to America.

John Devney: We know the answer.

Ramsey Russell: Bring it to America. What happens between North Dakota and Mississippi if there’s no hunting or there’s so little hunting opportunity, so little bag limit, so little something that all of the private landowners say, screw this, man. I mean, I own this land, I can make a lot more money farming than I can fooling with these ducks anymore. And all of a sudden you hear this large sucking sound, boom like a boot coming out of the marsh and it’s all these private landowners disengaging from meaningful waterfowl habitat, it’s over.

John Devney: Right.

Ramsey Russell: I mean, you’ve got to acknowledge that from here to there, private lands represent the bulk of waterfowl and flyway.

John Devney: Especially, I mean, you spent plenty of time in California, right?

Ramsey Russell: Oh, unbelievable.

John Devney: If it wasn’t for what we’re managing for ducks in California, either private clubs, refuges, that sort of complex in the central valley of California, there’s no duck habitat left. There’s no incentive to manage the habitat for ducks. They’ll be a whatever thing they’re going to start growing high value crop in California in a nano second. I mean, this is the big cycle challenge, right? We got to do what we got to do up on the prairies to conserve habitat and make baby ducks. We got to make sure the big public has access to them. And if we don’t, yeah, you’re right, there’s always going to be mallards and pintails, I don’t know who values, if you’re a bird watcher, you value scarcity, not abundance, right? You want to see one pintail, I want to see thousands of pintail, guy in California wants to see thousands of pintail. The guy’s crossing them off the life list, he only needs to see one.

Ramsey Russell: I want to see duck numbers that when they get up and fly, it looks like a total solar eclipse.

John Devney: Right.

Ramsey Russell: Don’t we all?

John Devney: That’s what we’re after. But we’re after that because we evaluate abundance because we hunt them. The bird watchers, the non-consumptive user, I shouldn’t be critical of bird watchers, I’m not necessarily being critical bird watchers, but their orientation around these things is different. And people go to see one speckled eider, they don’t go to see 10,000 mallards at a rice field in Mississippi. I mean, it’s not what they do. And so that desire for abundance is what’s driven the very thing we’ve just been talking about. But to keep ducks abundant, you’re right, we got to have places, we got to have habitat for hunters, we have to have carrying capacity for hunters. There are some things going on in the world. Go to Kansas, which nobody even talked about 25 years ago and I’m hearing from Kansas rank and file Joe freelance hunter, that he’s getting squeezed out.

Ramsey Russell: By who?

John Devney: By all sorts of people. You go to Arkansas, you’re going to knock on a door and just be driving down the road and see a bunch of mallards in a rice field, knock on the door and say, hey man, can I go hunt those ducks? Those days are over. They’re over in California, they’re over more places than they’re not over, let’s be honest.

Evolution of North Dakota’s Wildlife Regulations

Those Canadian borders closed and all those white trailers and freelancers started coming to North Dakota instead at unprecedented levels.

Ramsey Russell: North Dakota for the longest time, ironically, was the wild west on stuff like that. COVID was a major game changer for North Dakota. Those Canadian borders closed and all those white trailers and freelancers started coming to North Dakota instead at unprecedented levels. And I saw the effect year before last to the point that I hardly come to North Dakota anymore, it’s just there are too much free range.

John Devney: There are more, this year will prove it out. I haven’t seen the final numbers yet, but there are more non residents hunting in North Dakota than there are residents.

Ramsey Russell: That’s going to precipitate change. And it’s like I got up and talked at a group in Kenmare, North Dakota one time to a bunch of actually private landowners, to be honest with you, that were supportive and a part of this system where you can knock on a door and gain permission. Man, I like the idea of at least there being somewhere in North America, especially when we’re talking about the inaccessibility elsewhere in America. I do truly like the wild west concept that somewhere exists still that I can knock on doors and gain access. But already we’re seeing legislation starting to affect this. And my point was with it being the last wild west spot that a man can gain public access with you saying there’s more hunters now, more out of state hunters than resident hunters in North Dakota. It’s like I told them, I said, it’s like John Dunbar told Tin Bears, how many people are coming? More than number the stars.

John Devney: Right.

Ramsey Russell: That’s not good for waterfowl hunting. And I know we’re not going to dare get into this subject, it’s two we ain’t got time. But right now, in North America, there is one place, right or wrong, I’m not going to get into it, because right down the middle right now. But right or wrong, Manitoba is trying to grapple with this issue that really boils down to, too many hunters in a shrinking landscape, that’s really in a nutshell what this issue boils down to. Somebody’s trying to do something, whether they’re doing it right or wrong, history will prove. But right now, one province in Canada is saying we got to do something. And that to me is a big red flag waving on the sidelines. Some changes are coming. The past is meteorically colliding with the future. We’re losing habitat, it’s affecting our duck numbers, we don’t have places to go and it’s starting to become manifest. And what we are going to start seeing every season growing unless we do something and I don’t know what can be done, this problem is only going to increase.

John Devney: Well, the thing about it is, if you’re not a resident duck hunter somewhere, I worry that you’re not a duck hunter.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right. That’s a good point.

John Devney: And I saw it with my dad. My dad quit hunting in Minnesota. Now, that was because he was getting older, he had a place on Leech Lake in Minnesota and he gave that up when I moved out here 25 years ago. But my dad was a guy that hunted pretty much every weekend during the duck season and he turned into a guy that come out here and hunt with me for 3 days. There are guys that I guess have the resources to fly to Saskatchewan or fly to Alberta and then go to Kansas or go to Nebraska or go to Arkansas or go to Louisiana. But the challenge with it is if you’re not a duck hunter at home, I worry about the durability of this. And so how do we make sure hunters travel, you know this better than anybody, you’re in the business of duck hunters traveling.

Ramsey Russell: But humanity has a genetic memory going back to early humans crossing a barren land bridge looking for wildlife resources and ducks fly and travel and we hunters also have this impulse to follow them along somewhere, maybe the next state over or two states over or halfway across the world, but we’ve all got this genetic impulse want to see thing. I want to end on a totally different topic because John, you’re such a treasure and a valuable resource and you’ve always got so much great information that you can communicate to us. But I want to talk a little bit about more the personal John Devney, who John Devney is beyond this conversation? And I’m going to set it up like this, you walk into Delta Waterfowl Headquarters, you meet somebody John Devney, you walk into his office and there is a wall of UKC ribs like, oh, you train dogs? Do you train dogs, John?

John Devney: I’m a duck hunter that trains dogs in the summer. I’m not a dog trainer.

Ramsey Russell: But you train your own dogs and you’re the last Mohican in a lot of different ways. Tell me about that.

John Devney: I’ve had the pleasure of owning, this is my 3rd Labrador. So, I had my Finnegan dog when I was hard and wanted to kill every last thing. And then I had my Seamus dog and I started playing the HRC game with Seamus, but late, right? And I didn’t know what I didn’t know and got his HR title on him. And I said, I want to see if a guy that’s as average in every way as I am can finish a dog off. Can I put an HRCH on a dog? Doing it myself, I run British dogs, so can I do it without a collar? Can I do it? And we set out on it. And man, I don’t know if I recommend it to anybody, but we did it. And Tag’s got his HRCH, he’s got his UH, probably have his MH by the end of the summer, we didn’t do it fast. And I made an incredible amount of mistakes, I had no clue what it was going to take to run from going from season to finished. I had no understanding. I was fighting my dog on cast into the wind, I couldn’t figure out why my dog wouldn’t take a cast in the wind until somebody said, well dumb ass, every time your dog’s got a better nose than you do. And he says, why are you sending me over there when I don’t smell a duck? So, I had to learn all these things. I’ve had the incredible blessing of having a lot of people really help me along with it. And so, yeah, I’m a little jealous that I’m not running the 5th series of the grand this morning.

Ramsey Russell: But you do it completely the old school way. Like my granddad would have trained dog. My granddad was adamantly opposed to shock collars or any of that kind of stuff. His primary training tool was a tennis ball and treats and he had great dogs.

John Devney: It’s all attrition and attrition works really well at 50 yards, it doesn’t work so well at 200. And so, it works great, when you’re at the early stages of training, it’s easy do. But that was the challenge. When I need a dog to take an angle entry into water and end up on the other bank and I need a cast, that’s where the challenge is. That’s where the guy with a lot more trainer know how with the collar can make a correction. My only response to that is attrition.

Ramsey Russell: Right.

John Devney: And man, we saw lots of attrition over the years.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah.

John Devney: But I’ve enjoyed it because to be able to show up and with a bunch of guys with 16 dog trailers and me showing up in a pickup truck with just me and my dog and some days are going to be bad days and some days are going to be good days, but this dog is going to have an HRCH. We probably going to be a hard stretch to get to 500 HRC points. He’s got his upland title, that was a complete and total car crash, but we got through it and he’ll have his MH. And I will have done what I really set out to do that prove that Joe duck hunter could actually do this and play with the big guys.

Ramsey Russell: John, you’re a busy man, I know your fixing as soon as we wrap this interview up, you’re jumping right into another meeting to go and save duck hunting for us. Thank you for what you do, thank you for sharing your time, thank you for giving us a lot of food for thought. I really do appreciate you.

John Devney: It’s always fun, bud.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening this episode of Duck Season Somewhere from Delta Waterfowl Headquarters in Bismarck, North Dakota, see you next time.


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It really is Duck Season Somewhere for 365 days. Ramsey Russell’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast is available anywhere you listen to podcasts. Please subscribe, rate and review Duck Season Somewhere podcast. Share your favorite episodes with friends. Business inquiries or comments contact Ramsey Russell at And be sure to check out our new GetDucks Shop.  Connect with Ramsey Russell as he chases waterfowl hunting experiences worldwide year-round: Insta @ramseyrussellgetducks, YouTube @DuckSeasonSomewherePodcast,  Facebook @GetDucks