- Each year, in accordance with the Migratory Bird Conventions with Canada, Mexico, Japan, and Russia, hunting seasons for migratory game birds in the U.S. are closed after March 10. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 (Act) allows the Secretary of Interior to permit the take (including hunting) of migratory birds if the Secretary determines the status of the birds is sufficient to allow such take. Importantly, the hunting season on game birds will remain closed until the Secretary determines that status of game bird species is sufficient to allow hunting. Thus, the Service promulgates regulations each year that allow the hunting of certain species of migratory game birds. The regulations are based on information from monitoring programs conducted during various times of the year to determine the birds’ status.
The purpose of annual hunting regulations is to keep harvests of game birds at levels compatible with a population's ability to maintain itself. The regulatory tools that exist to do this are framework regulations and special regulations. Framework regulations are the foundation of annual regulations and consist of the outside dates for opening and closing seasons, season length, daily bag and possession limits, and shooting hours.
The earliest (September 1) and latest (March 10) dates allowed for hunting are set by the Migratory Bird Conventions. Framework dates, the annual dates selected by the Service for hunting, vary for different groups of migratory game birds. Those for most webless game birds (e.g., doves, woodcock, sandhill cranes) generally start around the first of September and extend as late as February. Annual framework dates for most regular waterfowl seasons are from the end of September to January 31 for ducks, and mid-February for geese. Under the Act, season lengths may not exceed 107 days. Season lengths, bag limits, and to a lesser extent framework dates are selected and changed based on changes in bird abundance and habitat conditions. Shooting hours and possession limits are rarely altered. Since 1918, one-half hour before sunrise to sunset has been the traditional shooting hours.
Season lengths for ducks vary by Flyway, with seasons being the longest in the Pacific Flyway and the shortest in the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, reflecting differences in the abundance of birds, number of hunters, and other factors. The number of birds of a species or group that can be harvested by an individual hunter in a day is defined as the daily bag limit, and is based on the harvest pressure that the species or group can sustain. As with season lengths, Flyway differences in daily bag limits also exist; daily bag limits for ducks generally are more liberal in the Pacific Flyway and become more restrictive as one moves east across the flyways, for the same reasons that the season lengths differ.
Special regulations are those used to either increase or decrease hunting pressure on certain species or groups, or to distribute hunting opportunities equitably across regional scales. These consist of split seasons, zones, special seasons, and special management units. States have been allowed to divide their total hunting days (i.e., "split" their season) for some species and groups of birds into two or sometimes three nonconsecutive segments in order to take advantage of species-specific peaks of abundance. Zoning is the establishment of independent seasons in two or more areas (zones) within a state for the purpose of providing more equitable distribution of harvest opportunity for hunters throughout the state. Generally, special seasons focus on those species considered to be more lightly utilized than others. Special season hunting days are usually, although not always, in addition to the regular season, but the total number of days hunted in both regular and special seasons combined cannot exceed the 107-day limit. Special seasons currently exist for some teal, wood duck, sea duck, and resident Canada goose populations.
In some cases, permits are effective regulatory mechanisms for restricting the harvest of species and populations to no more than a certain amount. Permits often are used to manage harvests of swans, sandhill cranes, and some Canada goose populations where tighter control of the harvest is necessary.
Hunting regulations are published annually in the Federal Register. Prior to being finalized, the public may review and submit comments on the proposed regulations. Comments are addressed and final decisions are presented in the final rule, which is published prior to September 1 each year.
How Regulations Are Set - The Process
Migratory game bird management in the United States is a cooperative effort of state and federal governments. The U.S. and Canada are divided into four administrative flyways: the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific. Each flyway has a Flyway Council (Councils) consisting of representatives from state and provincial wildlife management agencies, who work together and with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) and the Canadian Wildlife Service to manage migratory birds in their flyway.
The Councils are advised by flyway technical committees consisting of state and provincial biologists. These technical committees evaluate species and population status, harvest, and hunter-participation data during the development of the Council recommendations. Supported by those biological evaluations, the Councils (U.S. members only) recommend hunting regulations to the Service for waterfowl and for most migratory shore and upland game birds.
The Service's Migratory Bird Program, with input from biologists in the Service's Regional Offices, evaluates the Council recommendations, considering species status and biology, cumulative effects of regulations, and existing regulatory policy. The Division of Migratory Bird Management (Division) then develops their recommendations, which may support Council recommendations or may differ from them, based on their assessment of likely impacts of the proposed regulations.
The Division and the Councils present their recommendations to the Service's Regulations Committee, which consists of members of the Service Directorate. The Service Regulations Committee considers both the Council and Migratory Bird Program recommendations, then forwards its decisions on annual migratory bird hunting regulations to the Service Director and the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks for approval.
Once regulatory proposals are approved, they are published in the Federal Register for public comment. After the comment period, final regulations are developed, which are then published in the Federal Register as a final rule from which the individual States select their seasons.
Process for Setting Hunting Regulations
Beginning with the 2016-17 hunting seasons, a new schedule was implemented for setting annual migratory bird hunting regulations. The historic early and late season regulatory actions were combined into a single process that establishes migratory bird hunting seasons much earlier than the previous system did. Under the new process, proposed hunting season frameworks for a given year are developed in the fall and winter of the prior year. Those frameworks are finalized in the spring, thereby enabling the state agencies to select and publish their season dates in early summer.
The change was made to address three primary desires:
- reduce costs associated with the annual regulations process
- establish final regulations earlier in the year to better comply with federal and state administrative processes
- allow states to select and publish their season dates and inform the public earlier to facilitate planning