Drought and disease may strain Colorado’s waterfowl hunting season

Prospects are looking mixed, and it all depends on when and where you hunt
FILE - Two drake Mallard ducks fly over Lake Erie near the Cleveland shoreline, Tuesday, April...
FILE - Two drake Mallard ducks fly over Lake Erie near the Cleveland shoreline, Tuesday, April 1, 2014, in Cleveland. Warming temperatures have brought a variety of waterfowl to the area as they stage for the northern migration.(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
Published: Sep. 30, 2022 at 2:23 PM MDT
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STATEWIDE, Colo. (KJCT) - Colorado Parks and Wildlife has some bad news for waterfowl hunters this year. Dry conditions in common waterfowl breeding locations across North America negatively impacted many species commonly hunted in Colorado, with a few exceptions.

CPW reports that many species of ducks and geese in Colorado during the fall and winter hunting seasons are migrants from Canada and the Northern US, and surveyed populations in those areas dealt with a number of adverse environmental and disease-caused effects.

Early migrators may be hardest to find

Animals classified as waterfowl include ducks, coots and mergansers. (PHOTO: US FISH AND...
Animals classified as waterfowl include ducks, coots and mergansers. (PHOTO: US FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE) (WLUC)

Early migrant ducks like teal, gadwall, shovelers, and wigeon may be harder to come by this year, CPW reports. Dry conditions in breeding locations, disease, and dry conditions along their migratory routes may encourage them to move south more quickly, leaving Colorado earlier than they usually do. According to CPW, the ducks tend to move through Colorado in October and November, but dry wetlands and reservoirs leave little habitat for them.

In areas where many of the ducks that migrate to and through Colorado breed, conditions were reported as dry. Southern Alberta saw a 25% drop in pond numbers from 2019, and was recorded at 9% below the long-term average. CPW reports that in Montana and the western Dakotas, pond numbers dropped 50% below 2019 numbers and 7% below the long-term average. Most areas were judged by survey biologists to have mostly fair or poor habitat conditions.

Experts estimate the duck breeding population in the surveyed area as around 34.2 million birds, 12% lower than the last survey done in 2019 and 4% lower than the 1955-2019 long-term average. Southern Alberta was hit the hardest, with breeding duck numbers 35% below 2019 numbers and 32% below the long-term average. Montana and the western Dakotas fared better, with a 29% drop from 2019 numbers and a 2% drop from the long-term average.

Populations and bag limits

In terms of species-specific breeding patterns, population estimates from CPW of the five most hunted ducks showed some mixed results. Mallards, Green-winged teals, Gadwalls, and American Wigeons all saw declines in their populations this year. Blue-winged teals saw some moderate population growth as the only reported exception for ducks.

Goose hunters in Colorado should see relatively high numbers this year, CPW reports. Arctic-nesting Cackling, Snow, and Ross’s geese populations will likely be around the average due to average and variable spring thaw conditions, and Canada goose breeding in Colorado looks to have had average success.

CPW states that bag limits will be around the same as the 2021-2022 season, but notes that the daily bag limit for Canada Geese has increased from four to five in the Pacific Flyway portion of the state. It also says that the central flyway portion of the state will no longer have a separate bag limit for mergansers.

Bird flu precautions

In the 2021-2022 winter season, CPW reports that waterfowl and other wild birds had widespread infections with new strains of highly infectious bird flu. With bird flu cases rising in Colorado for the second time this year as migratory birds cross the state, CPW advises taking these basic precautions:

  • Do not handle or eat sick game.
  • Field dress and prepare game outdoors or in a well-ventilated area.
  • Wear rubber or disposable nitrile gloves while handling and cleaning game.
  • When done handling game, wash hands thoroughly with soap or disinfectant, and clean knives, equipment, and surfaces that came in contact with game.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke while handling animals.
  • All game should be thoroughly cooked to an internal temperature of 165 F before being consumed.

More detailed information can be found on the 2022 Colorado Waterfowl brochure.