BISMARCK, N.D. — The number of breeding ducks in North Dakota has dropped below 3 million for the first time in nearly a quarter century, and drought in parts of the state this summer could make matters even worse.

A state Game and Fish Department spring survey that gives hunters their first glimpse of how duck numbers might shape up for the fall hunt indicates about 2.95 million birds. That’s a drop of 15 percent from last year and the first time since 1994 that the number dropped below 3 million.

About two decades of strong duck reproduction occurred after that, due to a string of wet years and a high amount of idled farmland in government conservation programs providing good grassland habitat for birds. Breeding duck numbers peaked at a record 5.4 million birds in 2002. A lot of idled farmland has since been put back into production, however.

“It’s really tough when you don’t have that nesting habitat on the landscape,” said Game and Fish migratory game bird supervisor Mike Szymanski. “With how much (habitat) we’ve lost, you put dry conditions on top of that, it makes it pretty hard to produce ducks.”

There was more water available to ducks in the state at the time of the May survey than there was last year, but that’s misleading because temporary and seasonal wetlands “were struggling to hang on,” Szymanski said.

The latest U.S. Drought Monitor map shows all of North Dakota being either abnormally dry or in some stage of drought, with about 27 percent of the state in severe drought. Even if the weather turns around, “it would help us out with the migration and staging ducks during the hunting season, but it’s a little late to turn anything around as far as reproduction,” Szymanski said.

A July brood survey will estimate duck production and provide a better idea of what hunters can expect in the fall. Good reproduction in duck-breeding areas in Canada would help matters, Szymanski said, and the Canadian Drought Monitor map indicates better conditions north of the border.

Historically speaking, the spring duck survey in North Dakota also is still 23 percent above the long-term average, a 69-year period that dates to 1948.

“Fortunately, we still have a lot of ducks,” Szymanski said.

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