Thursday 2 July 2020

Ducks Unlimited Canada: Protecting Migratory Birds Since 1938

As a wildlife management biologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada for almost 30 years, Chuck Deschamps has watched the organization evolve in response to new scientific information. But the long-term mission has remained the same – to conserve, restore, and manage wetlands and associated habitats for North America’s waterfowl.

The Early Days
Ducks Unlimited got its start in the United States in 1937 due to concern about adequate wetlands for migratory birds after the drought across North America in the 1930s. They quickly realized that the primary waterfowl nest sites were in Canada and opened Ducks Unlimited Canada in 1938.

The North American duck population had crashed during the dry years of the Dirty Thirties. Ducks Unlimited’s initial goal was to drought-proof the Prairies by reclaiming and enhancing marshlands. They focused on large projects involving dams and other water control structures. Staff would go around the countryside, looking for opportunities to work with local landowners on restoring marshes. All the work was done through easements with the local owners benefiting from better flood control and water redistribution. The first Saskatchewan project was at Waterhen Marsh near Kinistino and Ducks Unlimited maintains the site to this day.

These were large-scale engineering projects, many of which lasted for 30 years of more with Ducks Unlimited working in partnership with landowners, municipalities, and the provincial government. The Heritage Marsh Program, established in 1981, was an agreement between Ducks Unlimited and the Government of Saskatchewan with support from the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Wildlife Habitat Canada, and the Saskatchewan Natural History Society and was designed to protect provincial wetlands.

Nesting Habitat
Research was an important part of Ducks Unlimited’s approach from the start. They spent a lot of time trying to understand marshes – what was the optimal water level to maintain vegetation, what factors influenced waterfowl nesting success. In the 1980s they began to see drops in waterfowl populations and turned their attention to identifying the cause. They discovered that it wasn’t sufficient to have large, healthy marshes. The birds also needed upland nesting habitat with sufficient dead vegetation from the previous season to conceal their nests. However, drainage and land cultivation were limiting the amount of cover, leading to increased predation and the loss of both hens and eggs.

In response, Ducks Unlimited moved away from large marsh management projects and began looking at ways to enhance or restore nesting habitat. Much more research was needed. Can you seed cultivated land back to grass? What type of grass seed would be most appropriate? How can it be maintained over the long term?

The first trial projects were in Redvers and the Quill Lakes where they began helping ranchers manage their pastures and seed hay, promoting zero till, buying or leasing land and moving it back to grass. Winter wheat, developed by Dr. Fowler, at the University of Saskatchewan, has played an important role in providing nesting habitat as it is one of the few crops that is seeded in the fall and is already growing in the spring when the ducks begin nesting.

With the creation of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan in 1984, Ducks Unlimited started opening offices across the country and tried out a lot of different approaches to restoring and maintaining waterfowl habitat. A research arm, the Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research, was established to support their work. “That’s one of the things that separates Ducks Unlimited from lots of other conservation organizations,” Chuck Deschamps explains. “The researchers look at what Ducks Unlimited is doing. What’s working? What isn’t? Our programs have changed as they learned more.”

The next step in Ducks Unlimited’s evolution was to begin using waterfowl breeding surveys, satellite imagery, and GIS to target nesting habitat programs in areas where they were most needed. The organization focused its attention on Saskatchewan’s pothole country where there are exceptionally high numbers of breeding birds and the land is more suited to hay and pasture than to agricultural crops. If the organization purchases land, it contracts with the neighbours to harvest the hay or graze the land on a regular basis.

When Ducks Unlimited started seeding waterfowl habitat, there were no sources of native grass seeds. They used commercial seeds that most resembled native grasses but, as most of the varieties had been developed for annual hay production, the nesting cover needed frequent management. As a result, Ducks Unlimited started developing its own sources of native plant seeds, eventually establishing an independent business. Native Plant Solutions now sells to a wide number of customers, such as urban centres and highways, who are interested in restoring native habitat. Native Plant Solutions also advises municipalities wanting to construct urban wetlands. “Native Plant Solutions is a one-stop shop for reclamation and restoration,” Chuck says.

Wetland Drainage
Wetland drainage has emerged as the most recent threat to Saskatchewan’s wetlands. The province has lost up to 90% of its wetlands in developed areas and lost or drained approximately 865,000 acres in southern Saskatchewan and southwestern Manitoba over the last 40-60 years. Ducks Unlimited estimates that more than 10,000 acres of wetland are lost every year in Saskatchewan. While all drainage in Saskatchewan requires a license, the majority are unapproved and go unenforced. Government policies are improving but do not require wetland conservation and protection as part of the drainage approval process.

Ducks Unlimited’s activities continue to evolve. In partnership with the University of Saskatchewan, they have created an Endowed Chair in Wetland and Waterfowl Conservation, the first of its kind in Canada. They work with farmers, providing financial incentives to convert marginal lands back to forage. The organization also plays an active role in advocacy and education, promoting sustainable land use practices and the value of wetlands.

“Lots of people still don’t recognize all the things wetlands do,” Chuck Deschamps says. “Wetlands provide a whole suite of goods and services, from carbon sequestration to reducing nutrients in our lakes and rivers, flood and drought control, and pollinator habitat. Given all the benefits wetlands provide society, Saskatchewan needs a wetland conservation policy.”

You Can Help
Ducks Unlimited relies heavily on volunteers to host events, fundraise, or help with educational programs. Contact Ducks Unlimited Saskatchewan for more information.

Further Information
We’re Losing our Wetlands – and That’s a Big Problem
Protecting and Constructing Urban Wetlands

Photo Credit 
Ducks Unlimited Canada