LDWF to change process of how waterfowl seasons are set

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Commission set an 88-day, two white-fronted limit goose season, opting to ignore public opinion who preferred a 74-day season and three-bird limit. (Submitted Photo/Courtesy of John K. Flores)


The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
That is, of course, unless you’re talking about setting waterfowl regulations.
For 60 years, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Mississippi Flyway Counsel and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have developed the migratory bird-hunting framework the same way annually.
What’s more, for the past 21 years, record numbers of waterfowl have seen the various state wildlife departments in the flyway set 60-day liberal seasons, with six-duck limits.
For the majority of those years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service utilized adaptive harvest management models to regulate seasons.
Quite honestly, nowhere on earth is there better science utilized with such accuracy.
Adaptive harvest models utilized four population models for mallards with combinations of compensatory and adaptive mortality, density dependent factors, non-density dependent factors, and reproductive success to predict the next year’s breeding populations. Harvest data, breeding population data, pond counts and banding data were collected and the information fed into those four models.
Now, according to Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Waterfowl Study Leader Larry Reynolds, the old days are gone and the new days are coming.
The Aug. 6 Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission meeting would be the last time Louisiana waterfowl hunting seasons would be approved in August. Moreover, the last time adaptive harvest model current year data model would be used to predict populations in developing the framework for hunting regulations just prior to the season opening.
Reynolds, while speaking to writers at the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association’s annual conference in Morgan City on Aug. 9 said, “The recent first Thursday in August meeting was an end of an era — literally 60 years of setting hunting regulations.
“We are going to change everything in the next six months. That was the last August commission meeting where we’ll be setting waterfowl regulations. And the waterfowl regulations are now going to be set using a new, completely different process,” he said.
Because there are essentially two migratory bird hunting seasons — one for doves, rails, gallinules and teal, and the second for ducks and geese — in past years, the commission had to hold two regulatory meetings in late June and again in late July or early August to provide the state’s recommendations to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regulatory commission.
As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was pressed to have sufficient time to complete the legal requirements of setting regulations as well as provide somewhat of a “compressed” public comment period.
The reality of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries August Commission meetings was the committee essentially passed declarations of emergency that allowed the secretary of the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Commission the authority to set those seasons recommended and approved by the commission because the federal framework isn’t law yet.
For the 2016-17 waterfowl season, after subsequent flyway counsel and commission meetings in October and November, the goal is to submit and propose the framework sometime in December. This will allow the proposal to go through the normal legal and public comment period, where it can be approved in February 2016.
By June, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will have set the waterfowl seasons for the coming year.
Reynolds says the new process has several benefits.
“We’ll have increased coordination with other seasons being set like deer, squirrels, and other small game,” Reynolds said. “Our flyway meetings will be more focused. There will be a reduced number of regulatory meetings. And there will be adequate time for the legal process.”
There also will be challenges, says the biologist.
“The biggest challenge is departments will no longer be using current year data,” Reynolds said. “We now have to make regulatory decisions without the benefit of current year information. We can’t do the simulations that we’ve done in the past to evaluate the matrixes that would give us the most optimal hunting rewards.”
For the past two years, Reynolds has been working with other flyway biologists in developing models in anticipation of the new change that will take place in 2016. Where models were once based on closed, restrictive, moderate and liberal season models, by adding what Reynolds refers to as variance, the models become more restrictive or conservative, thus eliminating moderate season curves in the complex equation.
In putting it in terms all duck hunters will understand, let’s say based on the 2015 breeding population and pond count that happens to be at record high levels is part of the February recommendation. Remember, there will be no harvest data or banding data the department can utilize by this coming December. It is safe to predict that the 2016-17 waterfowl season will be another liberal one and 22nd in a row. Also, remember, it will be set in stone come February.
Now, let’s say that next spring a severe drought hits the upper Midwest and parts of Canada and the pond counts are way down and duck breeding population declines. Hunters won’t feel the impact of that until the 2017-18 season when recommendations will be more restrictive. Period.
Reynolds said that if waterfowl populations are not increasing dramatically year to year and hunting regulations aren’t driving the dynamics the biologists are seeing, it isn’t that big of a deal using last year’s information to make recommendations. What’s more, hunters may not like more restrictive seasons, but for the first time, they’ll know it’s coming well ahead of time.
In other words, they may have 60 days and six-bird limits this year, but the next year is when they’ll feel the pain with the new system.
There are more changes.
Every five years the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows hunting zones and season splits to be changed. To make matters more difficult for Reynolds and his staff, these, too, have to be proposed by December. Therefore, public input during the comment period is critical.
There is one caveat in all of this public comment soliciting: will the Louisiana Wildlife Commission listen to what hunters want?
Reynolds said he feels hunting regulations aren’t always about the biology but should take in the economic, sociological and personal preference aspects hunters provide.
During the Aug. 6 meeting, it was clear commissioners ignored the human dimension data from hunters participating in surveys by both mail and online that they provided. One example is white-fronted geese. Of the consolidated data, a sample size of 6,924 responders showed when it came to a 88-day, two-bird limit season or 74 day, three-bird season, overwhelmingly 45 percent chose the latter with 35 percent having no preference.
By contrast, only 17 percent preferred the 88-day, 2-bird season and three percent said keep it as it has always been.
The problem with ignoring the overwhelming majority is it’s hard to get them to participate next time when you ask for input. It makes hunters ask, “Did you really want it in the first place?”
Going forward with the new process, there will be ample opportunity to voice an opinion. Time will tell if the commission listens.
EDITOR’s NOTE: John K. Flores is The Daily Review’s Outdoor Writer. If you wish to make a comment or have an anecdote, recipe or story you wish to share, you can contact Flores at 985-395-5586 or gowiththeflo@cox.net or go to his Facebook page, gowiththeflo outdoors.

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