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US Fish & Wildlife Service FieldNotes

PACIFIC SOUTHWEST REGION: Wet Year Brings More Birds, More Hunters to Region’s National Wildlife Refuges

Region 8, March 14, 2012
Lucas DeMiguel, succcessful hunt at Colusa NWR
Lucas DeMiguel, succcessful hunt at Colusa NWR - Photo Credit: n/a
Bridget Nielsen, ladies hunt at Lower Klamath NWR
Bridget Nielsen, ladies hunt at Lower Klamath NWR - Photo Credit: n/a
Hunting on Don Edwards SF Bay NWR
Hunting on Don Edwards SF Bay NWR - Photo Credit: n/a
Hunters and geese, Modoc NWR
Hunters and geese, Modoc NWR - Photo Credit: n/a

By Pam Bierce, External Affairs

Waterfowl hunting is one of our nation’s most valued outdoor traditions and many excellent opportunities are available on 27 of 50 National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) throughout California, Nevada and Oregon’s Klamath Basin.

Several of these refuges are in prime locations along the Pacific Flyway and have critical wetland habitats for waterfowl migrating from their homes in the north to warmer southern wintering spots. Millions of geese and ducks gather in refuge wetlands.

The 2011-2012 waterfowl hunting season ranged from a record breaking year to a less than average year across the Pacific Southwest Region. Carl Lunderstadt, deputy project leader at Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge Complex (NWRC) in Nevada, had his own formula for a successful hunting season. “More water, equals more birds, which equals more hunters,” he said. This formula meant a very successful season for many of the refuges. For the refuges and the hunters that hunt waterfowl on those refuges, water is the key factor. The wetter than normal season throughout much of the region last year meant more water for the refuges. Mild weather, earlier flooding of established wetlands, made many refuges attractive to the wintering waterfowl and kept birds on the refuges longer than usual.

Stillwater NWR, experienced one of the best water years on record. The extra water created excellent early and mid-season habitat, reaching into areas on the refuge that had been dry for many years. The new habitat created perfect conditions for one of the best hunting openers on the refuge, with over 315 hunters. Hunter use was up from the previous season by 5 percent for October and 18 percent for January.

“The additional areas of water on Pahranagat NWR, along with the areas that we created through our habitat management program, opened up more wetland and marsh habitat,” said Project Leader Sean Sanchez, Desert NWRC in Nevada. “As a result, we had more ducks and provided a positive hunting experience.”

Modoc NWR, in northeastern California, has a history of having some of the highest success rates on public marshes, and this proved true once again this season. The refuge had the highest birds to hunter average for the last 31 years (2.39 birds/hunter), and the total duck harvest of 2,772 was the third highest in 31 years. The number of hunters was up from 1,063 in 2010 to 1,282 this season, but still below the long term average of 1,550. The goose harvest of 296 geese was about normal for the past 10 years, but below the long term average of 409. A new hunting unit was opened this year, which shot well for both ducks and geese.

Both Don Edwards San Francisco Bay NWR and Stone Lakes NWR have popular hunting programs within close proximity to San Francisco and Sacramento. The 2011-2012 waterfowl hunt season was considered successful at Don Edwards San Francisco Bay NWR with 860 permits issued and hunters harvesting approximately 2,100 birds. The totals were down 20 percent from the previous year possibly due to the warmer, drier weather. According to Don Edwards Refuge Hunt Coordinator, Melisa Helton, the refuge received positive feedback from the hunters who were able to hunt within the San Francisco Bay area, which kept them from driving several hours to the Central Valley.

Located just 12 miles from Sacramento, Stone Lakes NWR hosted its seventh annual public waterfowl hunt this season. The refuge received 4,768 hunting applications, a significant increase of 26 percent over last year and statistics reflect that the hunt went well. “The hunters regularly tell us how much they like our hunt program, due to the high quality of the experience and habitat in the area, “said Park Ranger Amy Hopperstad. “All the blinds are kept in great condition, and the hunters appreciate the fact that they are well spaced and people are not allowed to free-roam.”

Providing a large amount of wintering habitat for waterfowl in the Sacramento Valley, the Sacramento NWRC is another important stop along the Pacific Flyway. The refuge had a very successful 2011-2012 hunting season, even though there were 833 less hunter visits than last year. There was an increase of 4,000 birds harvested at an average of 2.9 birds per hunter which could be attributed to the mild weather allowing hunters to stay and hunt longer. Project Leader Dan Frisk, commented on the unusual dynamic, “There wasn't much rain and no flooding this year, but there were higher numbers of birds and the hunters did very well.”

Although some refuges benefited from increased water availability, others felt the effects of a drier season. “The main reason for the lack of waterfowl on the refuges is the lack of water in the units” said Ron Cole, project leader at Klamath Basin NWRC. “If the waterfowl isn’t here the hunters aren’t either.” The hunting season on the Klamath Basin NWRC wasn’t what they considered average, there were fewer birds and acres flooded. The hunting season started out with good numbers in October on both Lower Klamath Basin and Tule Lake NWR, with more hunters in the marsh area than the previous season. Overall there was a decline in the number of hunters utilizing the refuges, with refuge wide totals reflecting a decrease in hunters from 5,112 in 2010 to 4,336 this season. Although hunter numbers were down, the total number of birds harvested this season increased by 2,693. These numbers are still below refuge averages experienced during years when there was more water available on the refuges.

Lack of water isn’t the only issue that can impact the hunting season on a refuge. Road closures and difficulty in accessing the San Luis NWR negatively impacted hunter use during the 2011-2012 season, causing hunter use for the Complex to drop 14 percent from 9,638 to 8,265. Hunter use increased 28 percent on the Merced NWR. The average harvest of 2.0 and 2.5 birds per hunter was slightly below last year’s average, but remained above the prior 5 years’ averages.

Waterfowl hunters come in many sizes and adults weren’t the only ones who had a memorable hunting experience this year. Kern NWR attracts hunters from Los Angeles to Fresno and is considered to be one of the best public waterfowl hunting areas. The refuge began hosting hunts for junior waterfowl hunters 15 years ago and this year was the most successful hunt since it began. Sixty junior hunters participated in the hunt along with approximately 40 adults. The junior hunters harvested 182 waterfowl, including ducks and geese.

Stillwater NWR hosted two organized youth waterfowl hunting events, one in October and another in February. a week after the season ended. The refuge Friends group organized the event to introduce young hunters to the sport of waterfowl hunting, with a one day clinic of conservation art (Jr. Duck Stamp), waterfowl I.D., trap shooting, duck calling and decoy use. Forty junior hunters attended the event, which included a four hour hunt led by experienced adult hunters. “It was an amazing learning experience even though the hunt success wasn’t high.” said Susan Sawyer, Visitor Services manager.

Contact Info: Pam Bierce, 916-414-6542, pamela_bierce@fws.gov