- Associated Press - Friday, June 24, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The number of breeding ducks in North Dakota this year has reached its lowest point in a decade and a wildlife expert says it’s unlikely the state will see bird numbers approaching 5 million as they did just a few years ago.

The annual spring breeding duck survey conducted by the state Game and Fish Department indicates about 3.4 million birds, down 5 percent from a year ago. The survey is important to hunters because it provides the first glimpse of how duck numbers might shape up for the fall hunting season.

A mild spring meant a quick migration, and there also were fewer seasonal wetlands in the state to attract ducks as they passed through, according to Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird supervisor for Game and Fish. However, “frequent rains have since filled many wetlands that are beneficial for breeding ducks,” he said.

“The total breeding duck index is still in the top 20 all time, so there is still a lot of potential for good production this year,” Szymanski said.

The past two decades have been excellent for ducks in North Dakota, as wet years boosted available water in the state and farmers enrolled millions of acres of land in a federal program that helps preserve grasslands. Breeding duck numbers set a record in 2002, at 5.4 million birds. In both 2012 and 2014, the numbers neared 5 million.

It’s unlikely those levels will be reached again anytime soon, Szymanski said, as farmers in recent years have returned many grassland acres to lucrative crops, and the weather has been drier and open water less abundant.

“It’s getting tougher and tougher to bounce back,” Szymanksi said.

However, this year’s breeding duck number is well above the all-time low of 590,000 birds in 1959, and another good fall for duck hunting is likely in store. That’s good news for North Dakota as a whole, with resident duck hunters spending about $20 million annually, according to data from the state Tourism Division.

A July brood survey conducted by Game and Fish will estimate duck production and provide an even better idea of what hunters can expect in the fall.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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