Rich Hansen is Utah Division of Wildlife Wetland Manager and Waterfowl Banding Coordinator. In this week’s episode of Duck Season Somewhere, Ramsey Russell continues exploring Utah’s Great Salt Lake Basin.He and Hanson discuss public land hunting opportunities, habitat management, waterfowl banding projects and Utah’s Waterfowl Slam
Rich Hansen, Utah DWR, and Ramsey Russell Discuss Utah Waterfowl, Habitat Conservation, Banding Programs and the Importance of Great Salt lakes to Pacific Flyway Waterfowl Species
Ramsey Russell: This is Ramsey Russell with GetDucks.com, where it’s Duck Season Somewhere. Today, I’m in Utah, at Ogden Bay Waterfowl Management Area, and I’m sitting in the office of today’s guest. I’m talking real biology stuff here, guys. I’m surrounded by stuffed ducks and strings of duck bands and a leg-hold trap with coon bait and shellfish oil and waders that are well-used. That’s because today’s guest is intimately familiar and hands-on with habitat in this area right here. He really knows his stuff. Today’s guest is Rich Hansen. Rich, who do you work for and what’s your title? So I don’t mess it up.
Ramsey Russell: Wow, that’s a chunk of territory there, isn’t it? How many acres, about, would you say that comes to?
Rich Hansen: That’s about fifty thousand acres.
Ramsey Russell: Fifty thousand acres. Most of it is permanent, or semi-permanent, wetland?
Rich Hansen: Yeah, the majority of it is permanent wetlands. Man-made wetlands.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I guess my whole life, when I thought about the Great Salt Lake, I just think about a big body of saline water. But it’s not. It’s so much more, beyond that body of water. It’s way more complex than that. It’s a vibrant freshwater, or brackish water, ecosystem.
Rich Hansen: Absolutely. There are about 425,000 acres of wetlands associated with the Great Salt Lake, so it’s a huge area.
Importance of Great Salt Lake to Pacific Flyway Waterfowl
It’s one of the most important areas in North America for cinnamon teal. Over half of the cinnamon teal population nests here.
Ramsey Russell: On average. Tell me this, how important is the Great Salt Lake to the Pacific Flyway of waterfowl? What’s going on up here? How does it function in that? What’s its role?
Rich Hansen: So the major role of the Great Salt Lake— We’re going to start with breeding season. Cinnamon teal. It’s one of the most important areas in North America for cinnamon teal. Over half of the cinnamon teal population nests here.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Rich Hansen: Yes, absolutely. One of the favorite habitats is salt grass. The saline conditions that the Great Salt Lake provides is perfect for salt grass growth. That’s what cinnamon teal seem to prefer, around here.
Ramsey Russell: What other species?
Rich Hansen: A lot of alkali bulrush, which is very important for migrating waterfowl, as well.
Ramsey Russell: We shot some green-winged teal using it the other day. That’s what they were saying to us. Up in one of these bays, we were hunting just a big flat of that bulrushes. The teal were coming in to use it.
Rich Hansen: Yeah, they love that. Those seed heads are just full of seed, and puddle ducks love it.
Ramsey Russell: What other species breed here?
Ramsey Russell: I know y’all got a lot of Canada geese. Are they local birds—that’s what I’m guessing—or are they coming in from somewhere?
Rich Hansen: Yeah, we do have a local population of about twelve thousand Canada geese in Utah.
Ramsey Russell: The very first duck I ever shot down in Obregón, Mexico, was a redhead. It happened to be banded right here. The half dozen or so redheads I’m aware of that have been shot down in that part of Sonora, Mexico, were all banded right here in Utah. I don’t know why that surprised me. Do a lot of those same species—I know not cinnamon teal, but what about the green-winged teal and the other species you mentioned? I guess y’all are getting an influx from up in Canada, or further up north, that are also coming through here to stage. Not to mention Tundra Swans.
Rich Hansen: Absolutely. We’re a very important staging area for green-winged teal, as well as other waterfowl. Between the spring and fall migrations, we’ll have four million ducks come through the Great Salt Lake.
Waterfowl Habitat Management
Ramsey Russell: I know you’re a biologist up here, but what do you do? Day-to-day, season-to-season. What all does that encompass, to manage these habitats? Because I’m going to tell y’all, guys—y’all are going to hear from Tony, also, and you’ll see—that the habitat is everything. This whole wetland ecosystem is just slap-full of these little micro-ecosystems. Some of the ducks are concentrated around the bulrush, and some of the birds are concentrated around sago pondweed. Some are in other parts of the marsh doing something else. It changes as the temperature conditions and the life-cycle of the habitat changes. It’s really pretty darn amazing to me. Rich, how do you command all that? What do you do, day-to-day?
Rich Hansen: Water management is the most important thing that managers do on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. Before the growing season, we determine the areas that we want to flood, the areas that we want to drought stress, and the areas where we want there to be water in the ponds throughout the summer. It’s important that, once we determine that, that we stick to that throughout the summer and the growing season. If we have a pond get low, and exposed mud, then we’re going to have phragmites and cattails germinate. That will encroach upon the open water that we have.
Ramsey Russell: Phragmites is kind of nasty to crawl up into. Kind of like bamboo, a manageable bamboo, to hide in. But I hear it’s a real problem out here.
Rich Hansen: Phragmites is an incredible problem. Probably 25% of the wetlands are either inundated with phragmites or they have some.
Ramsey Russell: No habitat value.
Rich Hansen: No, there’s no value to it. The seeds aren’t big enough for anything to eat, and it is a non-native invasive species. It just takes over the marsh and the native plants.
Ramsey Russell: How difficult is it to manage water out here? Because I know that water is a very, very hot commodity out West, unlike in Mississippi. Y’all are really dealing with a lot of water issues out here. How do you manage water?
Rich Hansen: The way we manage water is, we kind of see what the winter’s like. A lot of the areas—especially the Bear River Bird Refuge—they’re going to have to look at what snow pack’s like and how much water they’re going to get. Then you kind of decide how many of your impoundments you can keep full for the summer. Then you come up with a game plan from there. Ogden Bay has got great water rights. The area was built in 1937, and water rights were granted at that time, so we got great water rights here. We’ve got enough water for the entire area, if that’s what we want.
Waterfowl Habitat Manager Rich Hansen Grew Up Hunting in Utah
Saturday morning, Sunday morning, we’d go out goose hunting. That’s what I lived for. When I was eight years old, I knew what I wanted to be and I’m doing it. I’m living the dream. I’m a duck farmer now.
Ramsey Russell: I know you’re a duck hunter, because we talked about that the other night at dinner. You duck hunt. Are you from this area?
Rich Hansen: Yes. I’m from ten miles up the road.
Ramsey Russell: So you grew up duck hunting here. Tell me about getting started as a duck hunter. How did you get started? Who started you in this thing? Did you teach yourself, or did somebody coach you along?
Rich Hansen: No. My dad. I lived for hunting. We grew up farming, so we were always busy, but he’d always make some time. Saturday morning, Sunday morning, we’d go out goose hunting. That’s what I lived for. When I was eight years old, I knew what I wanted to be and I’m doing it. I’m living the dream. I’m a duck farmer now.
Ramsey Russell: Hands-on with it. I guess, in some respects, it’s very similar to growing up on a farm. Then you were growing agricultural crops, and now you’re growing duck food and duck habitat.
Rich Hansen: That’s right. I’m a duck farmer now.
Ramsey Russell: You’re a duck farmer. I like that. I’m a duck farmer. I want to be. How have things changed since then? Since you were a little boy getting started hunted with your daddy. How’s the habitat changed? How has hunting changed? What’s going on in this whole area that’s changed, if anything? Better, worse?
Rich Hansen: Well, there’s really, really a lot of encroachment from housing. When I was growing up, you could hunt almost any field on the way out to Ogden Bay for pheasants, and there were a lot of pheasants, then. Now, you come back to Ogden Bay from Roy, and it’s a bunch of subdivisions. These Waterfowl Management Areas are, essentially, the last resort for pheasants in Utah. It’s getting to the point where it’s the last opportunity for waterfowl hunting, as well.
Ramsey Russell: I know there’s private land out here, because I’ve hunted some, but public land hunting is a big thing out here.
Rich Hansen: Public land hunting is a huge thing out here, and our Utah hunters don’t realize how spoiled they are. With 400,000 plus acres of wetlands and habitat for waterfowl, and I’d say three-quarters of that is public land. Then being in the Pacific Flyway with a 107-day season. People just do not realize how good they have it in Utah.
Ramsey Russell: No. All they have to do is come down in Mississippi, the last couple of years, and I’ll show them how good they’ve got it up here. This has been amazing. All the Pacific Flyway species—lots of them—you just got to get out there and get to them and hope the weather cooperates and the duck guides cooperate. It’s just some amazing hunting. So your job— Run me through a typical day. What might you be doing tomorrow? What might you be doing later this spring to manage all these different facets? Because it’s critical for hunting, it’s critical for duck production, it’s critical for stopovers for migrators. What does a job like that entail?
Water Management Critical to Utah Waterfowl Habitat
Rich Hansen: Like I talked about earlier, water management is the most important thing. A couple times a week, at least, we’re out driving all of our WMA’s, making sure water levels are where we want them. Where these are man-made areas, we have impoundments all over the place. We can manage an impoundment for whatever water level we want. Some of them might be a little deeper, so we can attract some divers. Some of them might be a lot more shallow for the puddle ducks. Then, this time of year, we kind of manage for our hunters. We raise the impoundments a little bit higher than maybe what the birds would prefer, just so hunters can get around.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah. That makes sense. For access.
Rich Hansen: Absolutely.
Utah Waterfowl Slam Generates Crucial Utah Waterfowl Habitat Funding
We built a new impoundment on the north end of Ogden Bay and used these Waterfowl Slam dollars. It’s awesome to know that, as a hunter, you’re contributing to an on-the-ground project that you can benefit from any day.
Ramsey Russell: Do the hunters participate in the process of management, out here? Tell me about the Waterfowl Slam. I’ve always said that hunters are the ultimate conservationists. We put our money, and our time, where our mouths are. Tell me about that program.
Rich Hansen: Okay. The Utah Waterfowl Slam program, we came up with four or five years ago in Utah. Everybody’s excited to get a band, so we came up with this idea where, for $20, you can participate in the program. You can get a band for your first duck, your first goose, first swan. Then there’s a Goose Slam. If you get four geese, you get a band for that. There’s a Puddle Duck Slam. All the puddle duck species, you get another band. Mallard Slam. Shoveler Slam. Wigeon Slam. Anytime you get all the species of that, you get a waterfowl band. It’s been a fun program for people to play around in and add a few bands to their lanyard, even if they’re not from a duck or a goose. There’s been a lot of interest in it. What we do is, we’ll take the money that is accumulated from that program. We match that with federal aid dollars, 3:1. Every $20 that hunter’s spending is really like $80 to the Division of Wildlife into a project.
Ramsey Russell: That goes out here into the waterfowl habitat resource.
Rich Hansen: On the ground.
Ramsey Russell: That’s amazing.
Rich Hansen: Three years ago, we built a new impoundment on the north end of Ogden Bay and used these Waterfowl Slam dollars. It’s awesome to know that, as a hunter, you’re contributing to an on-the-ground project that you can benefit from any day. For 107 days, you can go hunt that unit now.
Ramsey Russell: When I was coming up here, I did a little research. I saw the Waterfowl Slam on the license thing when I was buying my Utah waterfowl license online, and I checked into it. I’m like, “Well, why not? It’s $20 to conservation.” And I earned—so you know this, guys—I earned the Shoveler Slam and the Mallard Slam. A little excited about that. So that’s been a big help. Are there other ways hunters participate, at all, in conservation here?
Rich Hansen: Yeah. I’ve got a great following in Ogden Bay, thanks to Facebook and social media. Every spring, I have tree and shrub plantings. Trying to improve the woody vegetation habitat that we have for our pheasants and quail. I think last year I had about fifty people come out on a Saturday, and we planted over four thousand trees and shrubs.
Ramsey Russell: Really? What kind of trees and shrubs do you all plant out here?
Rich Hansen: Buffaloberry, uh—
Ramsey Russell: I know what that is. Yeah.
Rich Hansen: Currents, chokecherry, sagebrush. Woody vegetation’s kind of one of the limiting habitats out there.
Ramsey Russell: Soil conservation plus food benefit, and things of that nature, for upland birds, or songbirds, or anything else. Habitat’s habitat, isn’t it?
Rich Hansen: Yeah. We plant a couple of thousand each year. It’s funny you mention that, because I just put a post on Facebook right before you showed up. We’re going to plant a thousand trees and shrubs in a couple of weeks. Try a fall planting and see how that works out.
Ramsey Russell: Do you normally plant in the winter?
Rich Hansen: Normally plant in the spring.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I used to do a lot of hardwood planting, back home. Mostly oaks and hard mast—species there in the Mississippi Delta—when I was with Fish and Wildlife Service, and later. That’s not an easy job, planting hardwood trees. Even as a contractor, it was pretty darn tough, planting all those hardwood trees. Partly soil conservation, but partly wildlife habitat for where we are.
Uncommon Waterfowl Species in Utah
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the common species here? With a significant body of water right here, and there not being any fence in the sky—as one of my friends back home says—what are some of the unusual species? Because I know that going around some of these camp houses and some of these hunters that have ducks on the wall, I’ve been kind of shocked at what all showed up. Have you seen anything unusual, or harvested anything unusual?
Rich Hansen: Yeah. Every year we see scoter show up, and we see long-tailed duck show up. And a few harlequins. To me, that is pretty unique.
Ramsey Russell: How common are wood ducks up here in this area?
Rich Hansen: Wood ducks aren’t really common, but, if you know where to go, you can usually harvest a wood duck.
Ramsey Russell: Yesterday, somebody was loading a boat there at the ramp we were on, so we just passed it up to kind of go up in this little channel. It was just lined with Russian olives, kind of hanging over the water, and saw a big, drake wood duck. We load the boat, we’re leaving, and—not even a quarter mile away, in a little retention pond—is a white-winged scoter. I just said, “You know, there’s not many places in the world where I’m going to see a white-winged scoter and a wood duck within a quarter-mile.” That’s pretty darn diverse. I was shocked. Man, I sure would have liked to see him come over the decoys, just to say I shot one here in Utah.
Utah Waterfowl Conservation Issues
Water issues are really scary in Utah. We’re the second driest state in the nation, and I think we are the fastest-growing state right now.
Ramsey Russell: In terms of waterfowl conservation, habitat conservation, what are some of the things you see coming down the pipe that you worry about as a hunter? As a biologist? What do you see as some of the big problems facing conservation right now?
Rich Hansen: Well, water issues are really scary in Utah. We’re the second driest state in the nation, and I think we are the fastest-growing state right now.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
Rich Hansen: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Right here in this valley, probably.
Rich Hansen: Right here in this valley, along the Wasatch Front. Water is scarce. There’s talk about piping water away from the Bear River, which flows into the Great Salt Lake, and piping that to Salt Lake Valley. That would hurt, long-term, in the Great Salt Lake.
Ramsey Russell: Talking about Utah waterfowl habitat conservation issues with the Ducks Unlimited rep Jessup Boden the other day, too. You’ve got industry, you’ve got civilization, you’ve got people, you’ve got habitat. There’s a lot of things competing for water use out here, and there’s not very much of it. What percent of water does this basin comprise, relative to the state of Utah? 80%?
Rich Hansen: Oh, I would think so. Yeah. I think it’s 75-80% of the population of Utah that lives along the Wasatch Front.
Utah Waterfowl Banding Activities
Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy. Well, let’s talk about something else, now. How I met you, and how I became aware of you, was our friend Dan Spencer, who I know is active in your banding program. For example, he was in camp when I shot this redhead down at Obregón. Before I could eat a snack, let alone turn it in—before I could even eat a snack and think about turning it in, he already reported where it came from. I realized he’s been very active in banding. But you’re also the State Banding Coordinator?
Rich Hansen: Yes, I am.
Ramsey Russell: Tell me about that. What is it like to do that, out here, with all these cinnamon teal? I’ve never shot a cinnamon teal banded, a gadwall banded, or a shoveler banded. Tell me what that’s like.
Rich Hansen: Oh, it’s a lot of fun. I took the banding program over in 2004. We’ve banded a lot of birds since then. I think, prior to 2004, there were 65,000 Canada geese banded in Utah. We’ve banded about 55,000 since 2004. We got after it.
Ramsey Russell: And those are resident birds?
Rich Hansen: Correct.
Utah Canada Goose Banding and Imprinting Young Resident Canada Geese on Migrating Populations
They’re providing more hunter opportunity, but they’re imprinting on these wild Canada geese that are migrating like wild geese should. We’re seeing band returns from Alberta and Saskatchewan, each year, of these geese that we relocated.
Ramsey Russell: Tell me—because Dan’s told me a little bit about it, and I know you and I discussed it the other night—how are y’all managing your resident goose problem? I hate to say the word “problem,” but I know that, where resident geese build, they become problematic throughout North America. What are y’all doing?
Rich Hansen: In 2006, we initiated a program in Salt Lake Valley, and adjacent urban areas, where each June we go in, and we capture every goose that we can. We take the young and bring them out to the marshes of the Great Salt Lake and release them with wild birds, hoping they’ll imprint on those wild birds. We take the adults to some of our more rural areas—like northeastern Utah, there’s Browns Park Waterfowl Management Area out there. Try to take these problem geese and get them away from the city.
Ramsey Russell: Are those young birds falling in with the migrators? Can you tell that it’s working?
Rich Hansen: Yeah. It’s so dang neat. Putting bands on them, we can track them. Less than 1% of the young have returned to the city. That’s over twelve thousand young that we’ve taken out of the city since 2006.
Ramsey Russell: So they become molt-migrators and breeders in a migratory population?
Rich Hansen: Yes, absolutely. They’re doing exactly what we hoped. They’re providing more hunter opportunity, but they’re imprinting on these wild Canada geese that are migrating like wild geese should. We’re seeing band returns from Alberta and Saskatchewan, each year, of these geese that we relocated.
Ramsey Russell: These aren’t the giant Canadas—like we see further east, over in the Dakotas and Michigan and all—these are Great Basin? Westerns?
Rich Hansen: Westerns. Yep.
Ramsey Russell: I’ll be. Have they always been coming to this park? I’ve always thought of Western Canada Geese as kind of being in Oregon and Washington state. Did they just end up over here, or did their population expand over? I have no idea.
Rich Hansen: Yeah, I think they’ve always been here. To my knowledge, they have. But the Canada goose population, like everywhere else, is expanding.
Ramsey Russell: What other interesting things have you seen with your banding studies? Anything else? Any other revelations?
Rich Hansen: I just think it’s neat— Each year, I’ve seen how many of our geese are going on molt-migrations to Canada. I think there was between sixty and seventy bands shot up there, so far, this year.
Ramsey Russell: Really? That’s a sign that it’s working.
Rich Hansen: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Have you had any band recovery from them birds anywhere other than just this flyway? Do they ever get mixed in, up in the Arctic, and end up going down to Minnesota and North Dakota? Anywhere like that?
Rich Hansen: Absolutely. I’ve seen band returns from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Kansas, and probably everywhere west.
Could this Canada Goose Imprinting Technique Be Used to Rejuvenate Canada Goose Migrations in Other Flyways?
Ramsey Russell: This isn’t really what you do, but I guess I’m curious. How reasonable do you think it is—in parts of the Mississippi Flyway, for example, where the geese don’t migrate there anymore—how reasonable would it be to take some of these young birds and begin to maybe establish new populations of Canadas? Is it reasonable? Is it possible?
Rich Hansen: From what I’ve seen out here, I think it’s possible. I managed Farmington Bay for twelve years and came back to Ogden Bay in 2015. I don’t think there were, I don’t know, two goose broods at Ogden Bay then. Just between our cattle grazing and the phrag, and then relocating a lot of these urban geese out here—I saw hundreds of young geese this year. I really think they’re very adaptable and persistent. I really think you could establish a population.
Creating Waterfowl Hunting Opportunities With Wildlife Management
Ramsey Russell: What about the adult Canadas that y’all are displacing? Are they coming back? Because they kind of know where home is.
Rich Hansen: About 40% of the geese are coming back, and that seems to be the breeding pairs that had young. As soon as they can fly again.
Ramsey Russell: She knows. She’s got a fidelity for that area, right there. She’s probably going to find her way back.
Rich Hansen: Absolutely. We do capture a lot of non-breeders, and they tend to stay out there and provide a lot of opportunity.
Ramsey Russell: Yep. And the birds that come back—boom, they’re dead.
Rich Hansen: Yeah. Unfortunately, that’s one of the deals we’ve made, because we want to make a difference with this. If we capture a marked bird, then Wildlife Services does like to euthanize.
Ramsey Russell: I just think it’s a great opportunity. There can be solutions. That’s why I like this discussion. There can be solutions to wildlife problems. Y’all have essentially taken a problem and created opportunities for hunters, and for geese themselves, with this program right here. It doesn’t have to be just, “Go in and axe them.” It can be, “Hey, let’s find other opportunities.” I think it’s a very exciting program.
Rich Hansen: Yeah, I agree. We’ve got a chukar release program, where we take chukars and release them out on the West Desert for hunters and whatnot. I kind of liken it to that. We’re taking these birds that are produced in the city, and we’re using a lot of volunteers. I have hundreds of volunteers, each year, that help us capture these. It’s awesome to give those folks a hands-on opportunity with wildlife. It’s awesome to just bring those geese and actually give them a chance at life. Release them. They’re doing exactly what we wanted.
Ramsey Russell: And to me, as a hunter, it creates hunter opportunities. That’s a big thing today.
How are Utah Canada Geese Captured for Waterfowl Banding?
Ramsey Russell: I’ve seen Canada geese caught a lot of different ways. How do y’all catch them, out here on the Great Salt Lake?
Rich Hansen: We use airboats. On our marshes, the impoundments are all relatively shallow. We’ll just get a couple of people on the front deck of the airboat and pull up behind them. Then, typically they dive. You just reach down, and you grab them. If we have areas where there’s large concentrations—like, we’ll actually go out on the Great Salt Lake, out by Promontory Point, because there’s a very important, popular molting area for Canada geese. This year, I think it was like 998 Canada geese we banded out there.
Ramsey Russell: Golly! That’s a bunch.
Rich Hansen: Yeah, it was a bunch. When we have them like that, we’ll take all the airboats out, and we’ll put them in a group. Just kind of keep them in a group while I take a crew and set up a trap, and then we just drive them in. With that 998, I think we drove them in. We just split them three different times and drove them in. Banded a third of them. Got rid of them. Went and got another third.
Ramsey Russell: That’s pretty cool. How long did it take to band that many Canada geese?
Rich Hansen: I think we did that in four or five hours. We’re pretty efficient.
Ramsey Russell: That’s pretty darn efficient. I banded ducks before, and handling blue-winged teal was one thing, but a Canada goose is pretty big and unruly. Or it could be.
Rich Hansen: They absolutely can be. That’s one thing. We try to keep the kids away from the adults in the city.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Rich, I appreciate your time. Guys, thank y’all for listening. Live from Utah. @RamseyRussellGetDucks. See you next time.