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Waterfowl Hunting and Early Conservation

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out on the Game Trail

Waterfowl hunting season is soon upon us in North Idaho and it is largely overshadowed by big game hunting seasons. For the diehard waterfowler though, it is what they live for and big game season is an afterthought.

Waterfowl hunting is a hugely popular sport and brings great enjoyment to those who participate, me included. It’s a highly regulated activity that has a rich history in North America that has changed through time in response to the need for conservation. Like all hunting in North America, it began with an over use of the resource; a lack of regulations and ignorance led to a huge decline in not only waterfowl numbers, but habitat as well.

The Native Americans used abundant waterfowl populations as a food source prior to European settlements in North America. As more and more immigrants came to North America the need for food increased, subsequently birthing the market hunting of waterfowl, especially on the East Coast. In the early 19th century waterfowl hunting was completely unregulated and it was thought that ducks and geese were so abundant that it would be impossible to have a negative impact on their populations. Hunters used corn to bait waterfowl and used punt guns that were mounted on boats or platforms that shot over a half-pound of lead in one shot, killing a dozen ducks or more! The management of our resources in the late 18th into the 19th century was a dark time but the silver lining is that it gave rise to our modern day conservation ethic called the North American Wildlife Model.

Waterfowl populations started to decline with the commercialization of waterfowl and the citizens started to realize we had a major problem on our hands. We created the game protector positions and hunting regulations to limit the over harvest on waterfowl. This was no easy task for my early counterparts. The commercialization of waterfowl created a black market for not only the meat but for feathers to use in decorative clothing. In the early 20th century some waterfowl feathers were more valuable than gold, and people were paying excessive amounts for feathers!

In 1900 the federal government passed the Lacey Act, which made it illegal to transport illegally taken wildlife across state boarders. That law is still in effect across the United States and has been a huge tool in fighting the black market trade of wildlife parts. Fighting the illegal commercialization of wildlife is equivalent to fighting the drug wars of today; as a matter of fact, wildlife commercialization is second to the drug trade for black market activity worldwide. Subsequently, in 1918 the Migratory Bird Act was passed and prohibited people from possessing any migratory bird without a license and appropriate permits. Now we were getting somewhere on the conservation movement, and it’s amazing the people of the United States had the foresight to start implementing conservation ethics at the time they did. We as a nation were fighting a large drought and financial depression during this time!

In 1934 conservationist J.N Darling urged the federal government to establish the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp, better known to us as the Federal Duck Stamp. It cost $2 at the time and the funding was used to protect waterfowl habitat through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge system. This program is considered one of the most successful conservation endeavors in our country. Hunters and anglers are the only group in the United States to tax themselves for future conservation efforts.

In the late 1960s research showed that waterfowl were dying from lead poisoning and the major cause of that was shotgun ammunition. Lead had been used in shotguns since the 16th century so this was an alarming discovery. The lead pellets were collecting in waterfowl habitat in heavily hunted areas where ducks and geese often feed off the bottom of lakes and wetlands where lead shot collects. Lead shot was slowly phased out until it became illegal in 1991. Steel shot became the standard but any duck hunter would tell you that its properties were nowhere near those of lead. Steel is not as dense as lead so it has a significantly reduced effective range. As a response to hunter discontent, many companies have improved steel shot by increasing muzzle-velocity, by using fast burning powder such as rifle powder making more consistent pellet patterns. Steel shot now travels at 1,400 to 1,500 feet per second. Within recent years, several companies have created non-toxic shot out of tungsten, bismuth, or other elements with a density similar to or greater than lead. These shells have a more consistent pattern and greater range than steel shot. The increase in performance comes at a higher cost and sure makes you think before you pull the trigger!

So that’s a little history on how we got to where we are now with duck hunting. The waterfowl regulations will be out in print or posted on our website sometime in the first week of September. I hope all you duckheads have a great waterfowl season out there. Remember to purchase your Migratory Bird Stamp along with your license, keep those gun plugs in so your gun can only hold three rounds, and use non-toxic shot. If you’re new to waterfowl hunting, don’t be afraid to call your local Conservation Officer with questions; that’s what we are here for!

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Author info

Matt Haag Matt Haag is an Idaho Fish and Game Conservation Officer.

Tagged as:

conservation, The Game Trail, waterfowl hunting, duck hunting

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