Why duck hunters should care about climate change

April 19, 2013

There’s a lot of discussion lately about this phenomenon dubbed “climate change.”

Maybe the word “discussion” is giving the act too much credit. Politicking, bickering and flat out squabbling are perhaps closer to the reality. It leaves one to wonder if all the energy pundits, politicians and talking heads spend taking sides might be better spent on something ... worthwhile?

No doubt, things are changing. We can argue about who. We can argue about why. We can argue about how and where and when. But the fact of the matter is things are changing.

Ice core samples have shown us that levels of carbon dioxide are increasing at a rate 30 times faster than they were 10,000 to 20,000 years ago, making them the highest they’ve been in 400,000 years. On average, we produce 45 percent more carbon dioxide than can be naturally absorbed, the excess gathering in the atmosphere where it remains for at least a century.

For waterfowl hunters, these changes already are starting to happen on the landscape.

In the publication Season’s End: Global Warming’s Threat to Hunting and Fishing, put out by the Wildlife Management Institute with the help of a number of national sportsmen’s organizations, including Ducks Unlimited, the authors note that much of the habitat ducks, geese and swans rely on could change for the worse in coming years.

Prairie pothole regions could lose up to 90 percent of their wetlands. Marshes on the coast could become even more compromised than they already are. Water levels in the Upper Great Lakes could drop and shifts in the Western Boreal Forest could impact breeding waterfowl.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some places might see better conditions for waterfowl, but on the whole, those predictions don’t seem to be the norm.

“The effects of climate change are expected to be both beneficial and detrimental to waterfowl,” write the authors. “On balance, however, waterfowl will face serious harm primarily from the dramatic loss of wetland habitat.”

What To Do About It

Call it climate change. Call it a blip. Call it whatever you want. In many cases, we already know how to alleviate some of these problems.

Loss of the prairie pothole region, conversion of grasslands and loss of wetlands have been issues in this country for years. The real problem, it seems, stems more from a social hang-up we have than a lack of direction. In short, many people would rather spend their time debating the problem than implementing solutions.

Take the Conservation Reserve Program as an example. Even today, despite the proven benefits of CRP to the overall health of habitat and wildlife, despite the fact it has been hailed as one of the few bright spots for conservation in recent memory, despite the fact it does double duty, not only producing ducks at a rate of at least 2.5 million per year, but also sequestering about 200 million tons of carbon dioxide in the past four years (talk about bang for your buck) and the fact that a 2006 analysis found that eliminating CRP would cost tax payers $33 billion over the next 10 years, Congress continues to argue the value of this program.

Yet maintaining programs such as CRP could actually solve both immediate issues and long-term, climate-change-related problems, says John Devney, senior vice president for Delta Waterfowl.

“We need to be keeping apprised and understand the implications (of climate change), but it shouldn’t knock us off our primary responsibility,” says Devney. “We have epic challenges right now that are independent of climate change.”

In Devney’s backyard, the northern great plains have seen above-normal precipitation for the past 10 to 15 years, resulting in massive duck production and contributing to the rise in overall populations in recent years.

“This is 100 percent contrary to some of the models that have been presented,” he says.

So, who’s to say what will happen? asks Devney. Models are just that: predictions on the future. He says there are enough problems that need immediate solutions without trying to predict what will happen 50 years down the road.

“Chasing climate change is a fool’s errand in my opinion,” Devney says. “We need to be doing everything we can right now through easements, through term agreements, through the farm bill to work with private landowners to secure the habitat we know can produce a heck of a lot of ducks.”

And doing that work now might put us ahead in the long run.

Dale Humburg, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited, notes we are already losing a football-field-size tract of wetlands every hour.

“The challenges we face today are only going to be exaggerated under a changing climate,” he says. “What we do today in terms of protection and restoration of wetlands will only come as a benefit down the road. If we don’t address today, the immediate challenges, the 25- to 50-year trajectory might almost be a done deal.”

And while solutions to immediate problems are by no means simple, prairie Canada will not be fixed overnight and wetland losses won’t suddenly reverse without some hard work. They’re at the very minimum definable, which in the face of changing climate might be as much as can be asked for.

“This is not the time to be divisive,” Humburg says. “It’s really about long-term sustainability of landscapes, people and the critters that use them.”