MITCHELL, S.D. — South Dakota has lost nearly 15,000 resident waterfowl hunters in the past two decades and dipped to a record low last year.
That’s concerning for many outdoor enthusiasts, especially those who are participating in this weekend’s duck opener for a large portion of South Dakota.
The season begins one-half hour before sunrise Saturday, but recent trends show there will be fewer people who will march into marshes to chase an estimated 3.3 million resident ducks this year.
“People are busier than they used to be,” said waterfowl hunting advocate Scott Schutz, 42, of Mitchell. “It takes up time, and there are a lot of factors that play into it.”
For the first time on record, there were fewer than 12,000 resident waterfowl hunters last year. In contrast, there were about 27,000 as recently as 1997.
Rocco Murano, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department senior waterfowl biologist, said he is worried about the decline in waterfowl hunting participation, which fell 11 percent from 2014 to 2015.
The federal waterfowl stamp, which rose from $15 to $25 last year, helps fund conservation easements, habitat improvements, acquisitions of public hunting areas and other work. The stamp is mandated for anyone older than 16 who hunts waterfowl, which means less money is available for those projects when there are fewer hunters.
Murano said nationwide statistics show that participation for most types of hunting is decreasing. In 1991, there were about 14.1 million hunters in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s five-year trend survey. In 2011, the most recent survey available, there were 13.7 million hunters nationwide.
Specific to waterfowl, there were about 3 million hunters in 1991, and about 1.5 million in 2011. The next survey will be available next year.
Cost of equipment, access to private hunting land and available free time for people all contribute to the decline in waterfowl hunting participation, Schutz believes.
But there is good news.
Those who chase ducks and geese should have high chances for success this year, Murano said.
A May breeding survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service counted 48.36 million ducks, including a record 11.8 million mallards, across the north-central region of the United States and Canadian Prairies. That’s a 2 percent drop from 2015, but still well above long-term averages.
In South Dakota, several dabblers, or puddle ducks, rose in population, according to the May survey.
Mallard populations rose 12 percent from 2015, blue-winged teal jumped 21 percent and gadwall 40 percent. Green-wing teal (40 percent) and wigeon (235 percent) also rose significantly.
“When I see big numbers of green-winged teal and wigeon numbers in South Dakota, you know the migration was a little delayed because they should be farther north by the survey period,” Murano said.
Redheads and canvasbacks both dropped about 70 percent, while scaup (bluebills) rose 64 percent compared to 2015.
Duck season opens for those who hunt in the Low Plains Middle and North zones, which cover a large section of eastern South Dakota. The daily limit is six ducks, with two bonus blue-winged teal available for the first 16 days of the season, allowing hunters to take up to eight birds. The possession limit is three times the daily limit for each species, and shooting hours are one-half hour before sunrise to sunset.
For the remainder of September, there is a daily limit of 15 Canada geese. From October through the duration of the season, the daily limit is eight, with exceptions in specific regions in the state.
This is another year of liberal bag limits in South Dakota, Murano said, and based off population estimates, he expects future seasons to continue that trend.
“There’s good opportunities out there,” he said.