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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's waterfowl hunt begins this weekend for the northern half of the state but hunters may encounter fewer birds this fall because of the statewide drought, according to state wildlife biologists.
That said, it's still unclear exactly how much the drought has affected Utah's waterfowl populations as a result of a completely different reason.
North American waterfowl population surveys weren't conducted like they were in years past due to COVID-19 concerns, said Blair Stringham, the migratory game bird program coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Therefore, it's not exactly clear how many duck, geese and other game birds are believed to be in Utah right now. However, there are other ways to gauge estimates and those ways aren't very promising.
Stringham said the states that viewed major breeding areas determined there are fewer ducks and geese this year compared to last year. There are more than a dozen different duck species alone typically found in Utah.
"Many of the core breeding areas for most duck (and geese) species were dry this summer due to drought conditions. The low spring runoff this year left many of Utah's wetlands dry, as well," he explained, in a statement earlier this month.
Thanks to summer rain, Utah's drought situation has improved compared to where it was before monsoonal moisture arrived in July and August. Still, at least 88% remain in at least "extreme" drought conditions and all parts of the state are experiencing at least "severe" drought conditions, as noted by the U.S. Drought Monitor. What's more, 32 of 42 of Utah's largest reservoirs are below 55% capacity and the entire state's reservoir capacity has fallen to 48%, according to the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
Similar drier conditions have been recorded in natural areas, such as the Great Salt Lake, where one of its stations recorded an all-time water level low this summer. The lake and surrounding wetlands are viewed as important for waterfowl and other birds breeding or passing through the state.
"Hunters can expect to see fewer birds migrating through Utah this year than in previous years," Stringham added. "We also don't have as much feed for birds, so waterfowl will more quickly migrate through the state, so there won't be a lot of birds around later in the season."
Utah's general duck and dark geese hunting seasons begin Saturday for areas across northern Utah and on Oct. 16 across southern Utah regions. The northern Utah duck season ends on Jan. 15, 2022, while the southern Utah duck season ends on Jan. 29, 2022.
The goose season is a bit different. The dark goose season runs from Saturday through Oct. 14 and then again from Oct. 30 through Jan. 30, 2022, in the division's northern area. It runs from Saturday through Oct. 14 and then again from Nov. 6 through Feb. 6, 2022, in the Wasatch Front area. It runs from Saturday through Jan. 15, 2022, in the division's eastern Box Elder area. It runs from Oct. 16 through Jan. 29 in the southern Utah areas.
The division's light geese season runs from Oct. 25 through Dec. 15 and then again from Jan. 15, 2022, through March 10, 2022, statewide.
Ducks and geese aren't the only wildlife impacted by the drought. DWR biologists explained earlier this year that drought can have heavy impacts on the deer population because it results in fewer plants and other food sources. They estimated in August that Utah's deer population was about 320,000, or the lowest population heading into a hunt season in about a decade.
There are, however, some species that aren't as impacted by the drought. DWR also holds swan hunts that begin Saturday and continue through Dec. 12. Much like ducks and geese, there weren't any large-scale population studies on swans this year but biologists don't believe the population numbers will be too different than in years past because populations are considered "more stable" than ducks and geese.
"Swans migrate and stop over at the same locations each year. Traditional hunting areas, such as the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, will hold swans beginning the first part of November until the marshes freeze up," Stringham said.
The same goes for elk. Utah biologists say there are an estimated 80,000 elk scattered across the state that aren't as impacted by the drought as deer, aside from possibly fewer new calves.