Bright Future for Texas Waterfowl Hunting

Bright Future for Texas Waterfowl Hunting

Article by Nate Skinner

The future of Texas waterfowl hunting boils down to two things—water and habitat. The Lone Star State is littered with water and wintering habitat for waterfowl throughout its many eco-regions.

“Our 2017 mid-winter survey estimates showed the total number of ducks wintering across the state at over six million,” Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Waterfowl Program Leader Kevin Kraai said. “That’s up from about 4.7 million total ducks in 2016 and well above the average of the last two decades which was nearly 3.8 million.”

Kraai attributed this increase to the ample amounts of rainfall statewide over the past couple of years following the drought conditions during the first half of the decade. 

Another major factor in the increase of wintering ducks across Texas has been the rapidly expanding waterfowl habitat features within the interior portion of the state. The most important of these are small cattle tanks and stock ponds.

“Most of these small, manmade bodies of water are less than an acre in size,” Kraai said. “Many lie within the triangle of terrain between College Station, Paris and Breckenridge. In this area, there are new ponds popping up everywhere, as landowners are constantly creating new watering holes for cattle. These tanks have begun to account for thousands of square miles of waterfowl habitat.”

There is not a fool-proof recipe for creating the ultimate duck hole, but it seems that tanks sporting some emergent vegetation receive the most traffic.

“Limited cattle disturbance is also an important factor, and it’s something landowners can manage,” explained Kraai. “Tanks that receive a controlled amount of livestock activity are used frequently by ducks. Both too much and too little cattle disturbance produce a pond void of waterfowl.”

Perhaps the biggest reason why small, manmade water bodies within Texas are wintering so many ducks each year is because they provide shelter.

“Not only is there plenty of habitat in this area of the state in terms of food and water, there is also very little pressure on the birds,” Kraai said.

He said the concentrations of waterfowl hunters in the central portion of the state are lower than in other locations.

“Most of the waterfowl hunting in this area takes places on larger bodies of water,” he explained, “leaving the smaller tanks and ponds as undisturbed habitat for ducks to rest.”

Kraai also said that each small tank and stock pond is holding only a small number of ducks at a time. 

“It’s the sheer numbers of these features across the terrain that make them so valuable to waterfowl,” he said. “Each pond may only winter a small number of birds, but across thousands of miles, these numbers add up quickly. The lack of intense hunting pressure in the region combined with the immense habitat available is quickly making interior Texas the largest winter home for waterfowl in North America.”

Kraai says the region is so vital to wintering ducks that TPWD has contracted Texas Tech University to analyze this habitat and identify the carrying capacity of individual bodies of water.

“These cattle tanks and stock ponds are attracting ducks back to their breeding grounds in the Prairie Pothole Region of North America each spring, fat and healthy,” he said. “This is playing a major role in the success for a productive breeding season, year after year. We want to know how much of this excellent wintering habitat is available, as well as how many ducks each individual pond can support. We should start seeing results and answers to these questions from the Texas Tech University study over the next year.”

Another key area that provides significant habitat for waterfowl is the Gulf Coast prairies and marshes region. According to Ducks Unlimited Conservation Outreach Biologist Kirby Brown, the habitat along the Gulf Coast is essential for the future of waterfowl populations. 

“This area has historically wintered as much as 22 percent of the breeding population of ducks and geese,” he said.

Within the Gulf Coast region lies the last intact rice prairie and wetlands complex of its size. Known as the Texas Mid-Coast Rice Prairie, the majority of the complex is composed of rice fields within Colorado, Wharton and Matagorda counties. These prairies and wetlands support over 200 species of wildlife and are critically important to waterfowl.

Brown said that mid-coast rice prairies account for 66 percent of dietary needs and energy supply for all waterfowl wintering in the area. This means thousands of ducks and geese depend on rice habitat each year.

The driving force behind rice production on mid-coast prairies is water. The main source of water for rice farmers in this area is the Colorado River, specifically the section below Longhorn Dam in Austin, which makes up the lower river basin governed by the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). 

The drought conditions experienced from 2010 to 2015 meant very little water came down the lower portion of the Colorado. From 2012 to 2015, the LCRA did not allocate any water to mid-coast rice prairie farmers. As a result, rice crops suffered and so did precious waterfowl habitat. 

Recent wet years ended the drought, and Brown said the Highland Lakes above Longhorn Dam are in good shape, allowing for plenty of water to flow downstream.

“The state experienced record rainfall amounts in several drought-stricken locations during the spring months of 2015 and 2016,” said Brown. “This has allowed for LCRA district farmers to finally receive plenty of water for rice crops. There is now more rice on the prairie than there has been in several years, which means there is more habitat for ducks and geese.”

LCRA has partnered with Ducks Unlimited and several other organizations to fund the development of off-channel reservoirs to add to the region’s water supply. These projects will give rice farmers hope during drought years by providing contingency reserves available. This allows them to plan how they farm when water becomes scarce rather than just leaving rice crops and waterfowl habitat to suffer.

“The Lane City Reservoir in Wharton County will be the first significant new water supply in the Lower Colorado River basin in over 40 years,” explained Brown. “It is the first project that will allow LCRA to capture and store significant amounts of water downstream of the Highland Lakes, and it could add up to 90,000 acre-feet of water to the area’s supply. This project is scheduled for completion in late 2018.”

According to Brown, another off-channel reservoir project funded by Ducks Unlimited in partnership with LCRA is the Prairie Conservation Reservoir in Eagle Lake. 

“This project will include a 2,000 acre-foot, off-channel reservoir and a possible new pump station close to existing irrigation canals in Colorado County,” he said. “The reservoir has the potential to save up to 20,000 acre-feet of irrigation water ordered from the Highland Lakes in a typical year.”

Once these two reservoirs are completed, there is the potential for an additional 110,000 acre-feet of water to be added to the lower Colorado River basin’s supply. 

Brown said these reservoirs are designed to move water in and out by taking advantage of short, intense pulses of rain.

“Basically, these projects will allow LCRA to store additional water when the river reaches flood stage,” he said. “This will reduce the amount of water otherwise required to be released from the Highland Lakes to serve downstream demands, including industrial and agricultural customers. All users along the entire basin will benefit from the reservoirs.”

Ducks Unlimited is also combining efforts with USA Rice to create a Resource Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) to keep water across coastal rice prairies. Brown said that the goals of the RCPP are to reduce water loss in fields and increase water efficiencies across prairie complexes. 

“We are going to accomplish these goals through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and a Conservation Stewardship Program,” he said. “EQIP will focus on land leveling in traditional farm fields where it is necessary. The Conservation Stewardship Program will target the management side of things, such as where water should be held in certain locations for wintering waterfowl.”

Although Gulf Coast prairies and marshes have changed significantly over the past several decades, they have responded well during the recent wet years. As a result, duck numbers in the region have sky rocketed. The 2017 TPWD midwinter survey estimates showed that the total number of ducks wintering in the area was more than 2.1 million birds. This is well over the average in the region for the past 21 years which calculated at a little more than 1.5 million. It is also more than double the amount of the total number of ducks reported in the 2016 midwinter surveys of the area.

When it comes to geese, there are several portions of Texas that receive moderate numbers of birds. Some of this distribution depends on the weather. Freezing temperatures must be experienced in Midwestern states for large concentrations of geese within the Central Flyway to be forced to migrate to locations in Texas. 

Recently, the Rolling Plains and High Plains regions have reported some of the most consistent numbers of geese due to the tremendous amount of habitat available in the forms of agricultural fields and playa wetlands.

“Besides weather, geese migrations are largely driven by food,” Kraai said. “The intense agricultural influences within the Rolling and High Plains provide plenty of winter feed for these birds. That’s why they keep returning, year after year.”

The peanut industry rules agricultural production in the Rolling Plains. Vast peanut fields in Haskell and Knox counties provide food and a source of energy for large numbers of White-fronted Geese, also known as Specklebellies. Plenty of Greater and Lesser Canada Geese are regularly found feeding in these same peanut fields during the winter as well.

“The Haskell and Knox county areas winter the largest population of greater White-fronted Geese in the state of Texas,” said Kraai. “This population of birds nests in interior Alaska and migrates to these peanut fields each year.”

High Plains agriculture is driven by the corn industry, and corn fields are the number one attractant for geese in the area. Milo and winter wheat are also predominant crops in the region. 

“The High Plains lack the significant numbers of White-fronted Geese found in the Rolling Plains,” Kraai said. “Instead, the areas around Amarillo and Lubbock have tremendous concentrations of Snow Geese and Lesser Canada Geese that feed on the corn, milo and wheat fields each winter.”

Playa lakes are the main source of water for geese wintering in the Rolling and High Plains. They provide roost sites for these incredible flocks of birds. 

“Playa Lakes are a natural chain of wetlands that primarily rely on rainfall to maintain levels of water large enough to provide substantial roost habitat,” Kraai said. “They average about 15 acres in size, and some can be larger.”

The Haskell and Knox county areas in the Rolling Plains have a limited amount of playas available for roost habitat. The geese that winter here rely on a small chain of playa wetlands known as the Winchester Lakes.

TPWD data shows that the High Plains region includes the most playas in the entire state and that Texas has the highest density of Playa Lakes in North America. These playas are arguably the most significant waterfowl habitat feature within the area, even though they only cover roughly 2 percent of the region’s landscape.

Wintering goose populations in the Rolling and High Plains have been holding fairly steady over the past couple of years according to TPWD mid-winter surveys. These areas still include some of the best goose hunting terrain in the state.

Available habitat for wintering waterfowl is the foundation for waterfowl hunting. Water and food for Texas ducks and geese should be conserved, as well as protected, by landowners.

As Texans, we owe it to the sport, we owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to the retrievers that hunt alongside us. Waterfowl season is upon us. Let the tradition and legacy live on.

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