Water & Drought

Drought squeezes duck hunters – that could be bad news for fowl

At 5 a.m. on a recent Tuesday in Northern California’s rice country, headlamps and pickup lights illuminated a flurry of movement off a turnout along a rural Butte County highway.

A half dozen men tugged on camouflage chest waders, coats and caps, and loaded shotguns and equipment onto waiting ATVs. Around them, a couple of Labrador retrievers bounded around the group with excitement.

Greg Galli, the owner of River Valley Outfitters, directed the flow, readying his clients for a windy morning of duck and goose hunting. Galli would lead the men into rice fields that have been flooded post-harvest, in part to serve as resting ground for the mass migration of birds making their annual winter trek south along the Pacific Flyway. Galli, who leases hunting blinds from Sacramento Valley farmers, has had a busy fall.

“Our day-shoot blinds are doing triple what they normally do,” Galli said, “because most people don’t have water in their duck clubs.”

Largely lost in the statewide discussion about fallowed crops, depleted reservoirs and brown lawns, is the impact of California’s drought on hunting. The succession of four dry years has dried up many of the natural marshes and rice fields used by the estimated 55,000 people who hunt waterfowl in California. While the number of duck hunters has stayed relatively steady overall in recent years, some of the state’s larger refuges have seen a marked decline in hunter usage.

As land available to hunters shrinks, there’s more at stake than increased competition for access to remaining wetlands. State officials point to implications for the state’s rural economy – and ultimately for waterfowl.

Duck hunting is a tradition ingrained in California’s Central Valley and northeastern reaches. In these rural areas, hunters provide a seasonal economic boost to gas stations, motels and diners during waterfowl season, which generally runs from October through January. Because rice farmers often lease hunting blinds to duck hunters, they also receive a financial benefit – one that helps motivate them to flood their fields, creating tens of thousands of acres of surrogate waterfowl habitat.

That’s part of the reason that some conservationists say a decline in duck hunting actually could spell bad news for the ducks.

Waterfowl hunters are a critical source of habitat funding, said Dan Yparraguirre, a deputy director at the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“It’s the hunters that are paying the freight,” he said.

Yparraguirre said duck hunters have funded many of the conservation efforts that have helped California’s waterfowl thrive. Since 1971, revenue generated by the specialty duck stamps hunters must purchase to legally bag ducks in California contributed close to $30 million to a dedicated fund for habitat restoration and research.

Plus, Yparraguirre said, their licenses, fees, federal stamps and equipment taxes help cover the costs of managing the dozens of public wildlife refuges that open up a portion of their properties to waterfowl hunting each year.

It’s not just the state doing this work. The hunter-funded California Waterfowl Association boasts on its website of completing more than 1,240 projects to protect, restore and enhance more than 454,000 acres of private and public wetlands and other habitat that host a range of wildlife.

California hunters each year kill more than 1 million ducks and geese during the season, according to federal data. But Yparraguirre is among those who argue that those numbers are small compared to the total populations, which are healthier because of hunter dollars.

Even with California having some of the longest waterfowl hunting seasons in the country, the Pacific Flyway’s overall waterfowl populations have grown in recent decades, Yparraguirre said. And that is despite the surge of roads, farms and subdivisions that supplanted much of the state’s seasonal marshland.

The shrinking supply of suitable hunting ground is a direct reflection of the state’s drought-strained water supply. Much like farms and cities, many of the waterfowl refuges are dependent on deliveries from the complex state and federal plumbing networks that move water north to south in California. As the state’s reservoirs shrink, the amount of water made available to some public refuges has been severely curtailed.

Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, a critical staging area for millions of birds in the Pacific Flyway, is an extreme example. The 50,092-acre refuge along the Oregon border in Siskiyou County has suffered water cutbacks for more than a decade. This year, the refuge didn’t start receiving water to flood most of its fields and marshes until just a couple of weeks ago, after the migration – and hunting – seasons were underway.

Further south, two popular public hunting areas, Sutter and Kern national wildlife refuges, remain closed to hunting because there’s not enough water to provide both bird sanctuary and hunting grounds. Most refuges allow hunting on only a limited percentage of the property.

At some public hunting refuges that did receive water, daily hunter quotas have gotten tighter because the refuges received only a percentage of their normal allotment. On most days, the only hunters allowed to enter the more popular areas are those lucky enough to be selected in competitive lotteries run by the state.

The water situation is not much better on the private lands used by the bulk of California’s hunters. About two thirds of California’s remaining wetlands are on private property, and most are maintained as duck clubs, said Mark Hennelly, a California Waterfowl Association vice president. Many won’t receive water this year until late in the season, if at all.

Hunters pay an annual membership fee to access these private lands. Another common option is for groups to pay rice farmers to allow them to access the fields they have flooded to break down the post-harvest straw.

But the amount of acreage devoted to rice also has shrunk in the drought. Many Sacramento Valley rice farmers have chosen to fallow fields in response to curtailed government water deliveries. And some have sold their remaining allotments to farmers further south, cashing in on sky-high water market prices.

Last year, 434,000 acres of rice were planted statewide, down from 567,000 in 2013, according to the California Rice Commission. This year, that fell to 375,000 acres.

In a normal water year, rice farmers typically flood up to 300,000 acres to decompose straw, said Paul Buttner, the rice commission’s manager of environmental affairs. This year, farmers will flood fewer than 100,000 acres.

Galli, the hunting guide, said – with demand high and acreage limited – some rice farmers are asking much more this year to lease a blind. Typically, he said, a four-person pit blind on a rice field in his area would lease for between $6,500 and $7,500 a season. This year, he said, some farmers are charging up to $10,000 to help pay for the water that needed to be pumped in.

Galli said many clients hiring him this season are frustrated with the quotas on public grounds and the lack of access on private grounds. Avoiding the rigamarole can make his $275 fee for a morning of hunting seem like a deal. Plus, his clients know his blinds will be on flooded fields, so they’ll usually get some shooting.

“We’ve actually done pretty well this year so far,” Galli said, sitting in his truck as flocks of squawking snow geese passed overhead. “I can’t complain.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow.