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Drought and wetland drainage take a toll on state duck hunting


South Dakota’s multi-year drought is resulting in fewer and smaller wetlands.

The dry conditions cause some ducks to overfly the region to areas with more stable wetland habitats.

Lifelong waterfowl hunter and retired wildlife biologist Chuck Dieter said the drought is making for a tougher hunt.

“A lot of the ducks that use smaller wetlands, ‘the puddle ducks,’ it's been tough because there's just not that many small wetlands around anymore," Dieter said. "Even some of the medium-size ones are pretty well dried up. So, that's forcing them to go to bigger lakes.”

And Deiter said lake hunting isn’t reasonable for some hunters.

“It's hard to hunt from shore on a big lake. You need to hunt from a boat, basically. Most lakes are too deep and it's pretty tough hunting because sometimes there's not any place to hide,” Deiter said.

Southeastern South Dakota is experiencing its driest conditions since about 2005, according to Game, Fish, and Parks senior waterfowl biologist Rocco Murano.

“Anywhere north of Highway 14, and then anywhere north of especially Highway 212, wetland conditions are looking quite a bit better,” he said.

However, Murano said that while the dry end of the state’s naturally occurring wet-dry cycle isn’t great for duck hunters, it’s important for the regeneration of wetland habitats.

“Honestly, a lot of these basins that are drawing down and going dry haven't done so for, heck, maybe 20 years," he said. "And it needs to happen for nutrient cycling and for the health of the wetlands and ultimately the productivity for ducks. So in some ways, it's a good thing.”

Waterfowl are well adapted to naturally occurring drought conditions, but much of today’s waterfowl habitat loss is human-caused. That includes everything from emissions that make droughts more severe, to the drainage of wetlands – a practice Chuck Dieter said has been steadily increasing for decades.

“A lot of wetlands have been drained, and they keep getting drained every year. And that impacts nesting waterfowl,” he said. “And if there are no wetlands, basically, there's no place for ducks to raise their young.”

And the majority of wetlands drained are the ones most important to waterfowl, according to Rocco Murano with GFP.

“Usually you're removing the smallest wetlands from the landscape. So, the temporaries and seasonals is what are generally drained. And those are the most important for breeding waterfowl,” Murano said.

Additionally, the water-soluble chemicals wetland drainage projects carry with them limit the success of insects, which passes up the food chain to waterfowl, according to USD freshwater biologist Jeff Wesner.

USD Biology Professor/Ecologist Jeff Wesner explains how contaminates can become concentrated via tiling.

The number of wetland drainage projects increased in eastern South Dakota in the 2000s, generally because of increased precipitation and demand for higher yields.

In an attempt to keep things local, the state gives county commissions the authority to assess and permit wetland drainage projects.

The permit program is voluntary and many counties have never participated – including some counties in the Praire Pothole region. That means those counties have no public authority assessing or permitting drainage projects.

Ducks Unlimited

The Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources is not interested in taking on the issue.

“Drainage issues have been debated by the Legislature many times and the consensus has always been that drainage issues are best managed at the local government level,” DANR said in a statement.

As the state’s wet-dry cycle becomes wetter and drier due to climate change, GFP's Rocco Murano said a long, severe drought could prove detrimental to the waterfowl population.

“Let's say we only have a couple of years where we're dry and it bumps back to wet, that's really not a big deal and honestly would be good for the wetlands. Now, if we go into a 20-year dry cycle, that's a different issue. So it really depends on the duration of each pulse,” Murano said.

According to Duck’s Unlimited, a waterfowl conservation group, the Great Plains and Prairie Pothole Region are the most important and threatened waterfowl habitats on the continent. They say up to 90 percent of the potholes in some regions have been lost or severely degraded – a trend that continues in South Dakota today.

Joshua is the business and economics reporter with SDPB News.
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