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When the sun slipped beneath the horizon on a recent late Saturday afternoon, it signaled the end of the 2014 duck season in Minnesota. In truth, the season was effectively over nearly a month earlier, when a two-week-long cold spell capped the state’s waters, except for rivers, in ice.

How to assess the waterfowl season just ended?

Short and bad come to mind. But a longer look at the sport in Minnesota and elsewhere is even more troubling.

To lifelong, dyed-in-the-fleece duck hunters, it seems the sport is dying. It’s one of those lingering deaths. An occasional rally, a sign of life, but overall, the symptoms are hard to ignore. A grave prognosis seems clear.

Ultimately, if the end does come, a post-mortem on the sport will show multiple causes of death.

Consider these numbers, the vital signs, if you will, of waterfowl hunting: Minnesota duck stamp sales are roughly half of what they were a generation ago. In the same 30 years, federal duck stamp sales across the U. S. are down 700,000.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does a comprehensive annual survey of duck hunters. From state Harvest Information Program (HIP) lists, the feds ask 80,000 duck hunters to keep a log of their activity and success.

There are all kinds of data in the report. For example, the harvest of ring-necked ducks in Minnesota dropped from 75,000 in 2012 to 32,000 in 2013. But the most alarming numbers are these: The “active waterfowlers in Minnesota” line on the survey results shows 77,700 for 2012 and 52,200 for 2013.

Though these numbers might be as much an index of what’s occurring as they are an exact determinant, it remains true that our community of Minnesota duck hunters is shrinking, and fast. The reason seems clear: Fewer ducks equals fewer hunters.

Consider this anecdotal evidence from a duck camp in western Minnesota:

On the opener there were some mallards and wood ducks around. Not tons but enough to make it interesting. The blue-wing teal had left. The ever-present Canada geese were there. By MEA weekend, the kids in camp were holding BB gun shooting contests because nothing was flying. Some years, by late October there is an influx of migrating divers, enough to carry the season. Not this year. And then, on Nov. 10, freeze-up.

True enough, the early freeze-up was an anomaly. But not the shortage of ducks. After a while, even the most ardent swamp rat has why-am-I-doing-this doubts during consecutive empty-sky dawns.

How did we get to this sorry state, given the long and storied heritage of duck hunting in Minnesota?

A perfect storm

The early ice of the 2014 duck season will surely drive this year’s harvest numbers further downward. That’s an uncontrollable. But seemingly uncontrollable also are the longer-term reasons for the sport’s demise.

These include habitat loss caused by big agriculture; lack of DNR focus on ducks; predators with the added complexity of the anti-trapping movement; and, saddest of all, youth apathy for the various hunting sports.

The loss of wetlands in Minnesota has been well documented. Fewer wetlands means fewer ducks. As shallow sloughs are ditched, drained and degraded to make more tillable acres for corn and soybeans, even the plea for clean water doesn’t slow this juggernaut.

Meanwhile, the DNR, perhaps with an eye on the shrinking numbers of duck hunters and resulting license revenue, is focusing its resources elsewhere. Many waters in state wildlife management areas, as well as those in federal waterfowl production areas, would be better termed carp production areas for lack of management.

Worse, in my view, DNR waterfowl managers seem convinced we can shoot our way to more ducks with earlier starts, longer seasons and generous limits. So much fiddling with the regulations while the sport burns.

In the 1950s, a six-year study was conducted on the effects of predator control and duck nesting at the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Minnesota.

Biologists found they could increase duckling production by 60 percent when fox, coyote, skunk and raccoon predation was controlled. Today, because of the anti-trapping emotion in this country, fur-bearer harvest is another dying sport/business.

Unfortunate as that is, worse is the well-chronicled missing generations of young hunters. The reasons are many: Parents are too busy getting their kids into soccer and other team sports, and too busy working to mentor outdoor sports enthusiasts. Additionally, today’s young people are tied to a growing string of electronic gadgets.

So who will speak for duck hunting in 30 years?

If there was ever a time to become active in the Minnesota Waterfowl Association; to join Ducks Unlimited; to badger senior managers at the DNR; to talk to elected representatives; to take a kid hunting, it is now.

The perfect storm is here.

Bill Klein is an avid hunter, angler and student of nature. He lives north of St. Paul.