2023 Waterfowl Population Survey: Alaska Looks Good Despite Heavy Precipitation

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2023 Waterfowl Population Survey is now available. First up, Ducks Unlimited provided some analysis on the overall status of waterfowl heading into the 2023-24 season:

DU Chief Scientist Dr. Steve Adair said the overall numbers reflect a complex relationship between waterfowl, weather, and habitat availability.

“These results are somewhat disappointing, as we had hoped for better production from the eastern prairies following improved moisture conditions in spring of 2022,” Adair said. “Last year’s nesting season was delayed with April snowstorms and May rains, which likely impacted overall production. In the past, we have seen population growth lag moisture conditions as small, shallow wetlands recover from the lingering impacts of severe drought.”

Key Takeaways

  • Populations of most species remain healthy and near the long-term averages, which should produce a respectable flight for waterfowl hunters and waterfowl enthusiasts to enjoy this fall and winter.
  • Total pond numbers in the U.S. and Canada were estimated at 5 million, which was 9% lower than the 2022 estimate of 5.5 million and slightly below the long-term average of 5.2 million.
  • Mallard and American wigeon populations declined. Estimates for mallards were down 18% from 2022 and 23% from their long-term average. American wigeon were down 14% from 2022 and 28% from their long-term average. These declines are a concern for DU scientists and amplify the need for sustained investments in conservation, monitoring, and targeted science.
  • Pintails provided a noteworthy bright spot. Population estimates increased 24% over the record low from last year. Although the survey showed that overall duck populations remain healthy, it also told a story of continuing drought in the western Canadian prairie provinces, which will limit production for ducks that traditionally settle in those landscapes.
  • Subsequent surveys will paint a more complete picture of how well duck populations are recovering from the severe drought of 2020–2021.
  • Highly pathogenic avian influenza – Based on reports from waterfowl managers and wildlife disease experts of partner agencies, DU scientists don’t expect a significant impact on duck populations from the HPAI outbreak of 2022.

“Lower than expected numbers in this year’s survey reinforce the need for wetlands conservation as habitat continues to be lost across the continent,” said Ducks Unlimited CEO Adam Putnam. “For over 86 years, DU has focused on North American wetlands and grasslands that sustain healthy waterfowl populations, and support clean water for people, too. As much as we have accomplished, these data confirm we have more work to do.”

Here’s what the USFWS report had to say about Alaska conditions for 2023:

Alaska experienced a late spring in 2023. Above-average winter precipitation, combined with below-average spring temperatures, led to a late snowmelt and ice breakup across the state. Large waterbodies on the Seward Peninsula remained 75–100 percent ice covered while other larger lakes elsewhere were ice covered but had open shorelines. An above-average snowpack and rapidly warm spring temperatures caused major flooding in Interior Alaska. Most affected areas were along the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. Flooding was observed elsewhere as well. Western Alaska  experienced typhoon Merbok remnants that brought high winds, major fooding, and saltwater intrusion across a large swath of coastline. 

Waterfowl habitat and production impacts are unknown, especially in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Despite a delayed ice break-up and fooding continuing in some areas, waterfowl production was expected to be good.