NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Larry Reynolds is a reasoned, respected scientist who isn't prone to hyperbole, but the state's waterfowl study leader is also a passionate duck hunter.
That's why he can't really understand the apathy he's seen from his fellow waterfowlers as the continent moves headlong into a very preventable duck disaster.
"One thing I've been very disappointed in is the reaction from the rank-and-file duck hunters," Reynolds said.
The problem stems from the fact that the federal government is mandating ethanol usage in the country, a move begun in the Bush administration that has accelerated under President Obama. As every grocery shopper knows, the use of corn in the production of ethanol has caused a severe spike in grain prices.
In August, corn reached a record-high price of $8.49 per bushel. As recently as 2005, it was $1.96 a bushel.
That hits waterfowl hunters especially hard because farmers across the fruited plain are draining wetlands and other marginal farm lands to put in crops to take advantage of the windfall.
Hunters have heard the stories of declining wetlands in the breeding grounds for years, and perhaps have become numb to the threats. But Reynolds feels we've already begun to see a decline in waterfowl production.
Last summer, Reynolds explained, the prairie pothole region had a record number of breeding ducks, which, of course, is a good thing. But the pond counts declined 35 percent.
"I think the production was much lower," he said. That would be the logical conclusion, but Reynolds also has anecdotal evidence to back up his theory. He explained that this year, he had twice as many adult ducks in his bags as juveniles. Last season, the breakdown was about 50/50, he said.
That's an indication that all those breeding pairs didn't have a tremendous amount of success producing ducklings last summer.
"What has saved us in recent years has been the incredible amount of precipitation we've seen on the breeding grounds," Reynolds said. "But what happens when we return to just average (precipitation)? What if we lose another 25 percent of our ponds this year? We'll have a decline at least as rapidly as we had in the '80s."
Reynolds spent last week at the North American Duck Symposium in Memphis, Tenn., discussing these topics with his fellow waterfowl biologists from across the continent.
"There was lots of concern," he said. "We can't determine the precipitation, but we can all see the habitat decline. It's very obvious.
"I talked to state waterfowl biologists and managers from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, southern Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba, and they all say the same thing: It's looking grim."
To Reynolds, the most painful element of all of this is that it's so preventable. Adequate funding of the Conservation Reserve Program would incentivize American farmers to neglect their wetlands, which is the best thing they could do for ducks and other ground-nesting game birds.
But farmers are turning less-profitable CRP land into crops just as fast as they can.
According to Gary Wyat of the University of Minnesota Extension service, CRP contracts expired on 6.5 million acres of U.S. land in 2012. Another 3.3 million acres will be eligible to leave the program in 2013.
CRP land in the Prairie Pothole Region has annually added more than 2 million ducks to the fall flight of waterfowl, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But even concerned hunters have grown to feel helpless while watching a federal government spend itself into oblivion, Reynolds said.
"Hunters will tell me, 'Larry, how can I in good conscience ask the federal government to spend more money on conservation when it's borrowing 45 cents of every dollar it spends?'" Reynolds said. "And those hunters are right, but what most of them don't know is that 2 percent of the defense budget pays for all the conservation we could ever need. It's a pittance.
"There are way more places you can cut. I can't imagine the lessons we're ignoring by draining these wetlands. Maintaining wetlands has so many benefits that manifest themselves for years, and yet we're systematically draining them for short-term profit goals."
Reynolds said wetlands that are drained and tiled can never be restored to the productivity levels they once enjoyed. For the most part, once they're gone, they're gone.
That means the 2012-13 season, as bad as it was, may be remembered as the end of the salad days of duck hunting.
"It's a great time to be a farmer, but it's a bad time to be a duck," Reynolds said.
Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com