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Director's Corner

Dan Ashe served as FWS Director from June 2011 until January 2017. The following is an archive of blogs authored by Director Ashe during that time. This content is intended for historical reference only and not as a representation of current Service policy or opinion.

Counting Ducks and Their Habitats from the Skies

Did you know we have a dedicated group of pilot biologists? Today, Jerome Ford, our Assistant Director for Migratory Birds, tells about one of their important jobs:

The 2014 Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey has begun! Our pilot biologists and their on-board observers are taking to the skies with support from crews on the ground. The pilots have a bird’s eye view from 150 feet in the air as they fly throughout Canada and the northern United States. They fly more than 55,000 miles every year, over lakes, rivers, marshes and other wetlands counting ducks, geese and swans — a distance equivalent to more than  two times around the world!


Habitat in southwestern South Dakota. You can follow our effort to conserve the prairie at #ConserveThePrairies. Photo by Brenda Kelly/USFWS

Early reports from the pilot biologists and their crews are promising. Alberta received good snowpack during the winter, and it appears much of the melt accumulated and renewed many of the wetlands. The conditions seem very good, and duck numbers are coming in above average. In southern Manitoba and southeastern Saskatchewan, conditions look excellent, and the pilots have noticed how much more water is around this year compared to last year. In southern Saskatchewan, pilots are seeing more green-winged teal than last year, while western South Dakota is yielding good numbers of gadwall, blue-winged teal, mallard and northern shoveler, with a scattering of pintail.

This is welcome news because conservationists have sounded the alarm about the loss of waterfowl breeding habitat in recent years. The Prairie Pothole Region, known as America’s Duck Factory because it produces more than 50 percent of the continent’s waterfowl, is in particular danger. The rapid conversion of prairie to cropland is threatening waterfowl and the many other wildlife species that need its mix of wetlands and grasslands. Beyond benefits to wildlife, the region sustains a healthy ranching economy and provides valuable ecological services, such as water filtration, erosion prevention and flood water absorption.

We are working to develop landowner incentives to conserve the Prairie Pothole Region and have dedicated a chunk of our Migratory Bird Conservation Fund toward land acquisition and protection there. Much of this money comes from the sale of Federal Duck Stamps, but the price of a Duck Stamp hasn’t increased in more than two decades. As a result, our ability to protect vital habitat continues to decline. The President’s budget asks Congress to approve a much-overdue increase in the price of the stamp.

The Breeding Population and Habitat Survey is the most extensive and most important of North America's waterfowl population surveys. It started experimentally in 1947, became fully operational in 1955 and has been conducted every year since.

This cooperative effort of the Service, the Canadian Wildlife Service and state, provincial and tribal agencies covers more than 2.1 million square miles of the northern United States and Canada and includes most of the primary duck nesting areas in North America

You can follow the pilot biologists as they survey waterfowl and their breeding grounds at www.flyways.us/status-of-waterfowl. We wish them clear skies and a gentle tail wind, and let’s hope they continue to bring us good news.

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