Are Flooded Cornfields Altering Duck Migrations?

The worst season ever? If you skim through various waterfowl hunting forums and social media pages, you’d certainly think last duck season was a bust. Many hunters across the country spent more time griping about the lack of ducks than they did shooting ducks. In some circles, intentionally flooded cornfields are getting much of the blame.

One newly-formed group, The Flyway Federation of Louisiana, says that inundated corn is a big part of the problem. They want to change federal regulations that permit this practice, calling it unfair, unethical and detrimental to the future of the sport.

The practice involves planting corn in low-lying areas or fields surrounded by berms that allow drainage via floodgates during the growing season. Sometime in September or October, landowners close those floodgates, trapping rainwater in the standing corn. In some cases, hunters pump water from a nearby pond or stream to speed the flooding process. Ideally, the water level stays just below the ears of corn. Doing so prevents the kernels from rotting on the cob, while allowing ducks to reach the food with ease. Depending on location, size of the field, and quality and abundance of the corn, these impoundments can attract thousands of ducks.

The FFL calls foul on hypocrisy of federal baiting laws. Under current regulations, it’s against the law to hunt over grain that is not the result of normal agricultural practices. Even though flooding corn isn’t a normal agricultural practice, federal regulations specifically say it’s legal.

“You can also hunt over standing crops that have been flooded, “The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Law Enforcement Division website states. “You can flood fields after crops are normally harvested and use these areas for waterfowl hunting. Hunting waterfowl over a crop that has not been harvested but that has been manipulated (rolled/disced) is considered baiting under current regulations.”

The law is clear: This practice is legal. The issue for many Southern hunters is whether it should be legal. It seems like a contradiction that it’s illegal to hunt over a cornfield that was disced by a farmer—but it’s legal to hunt over a cornfield that was flooded by a hunter.

Josh Goins, founder of FFL, suspects the spike in flooded corn is altering migration patterns and keeping ducks from flying very far south.

“The birds have no reason to migrate. The only reason for migration is a lack of food source, or snow and ice—that’s when they move,” Goins said in an interview with Louisiana Sportsman.

There is no question migration patterns are changing. According to recent duck surveys, fewer birds make it to coastal Louisiana now than in the past. There is more to the story than flooded corn, though. Upwards of 1,300 square miles of Louisiana’s coastal marsh have been lost since the 1930s, largely the byproduct of flood control, water diversions and other man-made alterations.

What’s more, average snow cover in Northern states is decreasing, average ice-up dates are occurring later and average winter temperatures are inching upward. That means ducks have access to food and open water longer, allowing them to stay north later into the year. Last season wasn’t just warm, it was also incredibly wet. Not only did the ducks stay up north longer, they had an endless amount of water and countless places to hide.

Even with those long-term weather and habitat trends, millions of ducks still migrate to Louisiana each year. The state remains one of the top duck hunting destinations in the country. Hunters bagged an average of 26 ducks a piece per season between 2011 and 2015, the highest of any state in the Mississippi Flyway. The total duck harvest was the highest on average, as well.

Ducks Unlimited has refuted claims put forth by flooded corn critics, and has even provided how-tos for flooding grain fields on their website. David Schuesser, DU national director of fundraising, said there is no credible science to support the theory that corn is the reason fewer ducks are migrating to the southern ends of the flyways.

Credible science or not, that theory will likely be debated for the foreseeable future.

This issue has opened a wound between the haves against the have-nots. Duck hunting, like many other types of hunting, is changing. Leases are far more common now than 20 years ago and those who can’t afford a pricey seat in a private blind are relegated to public lands. But are those hunters with ample resources—land, machinery and money—robbing the average guy of hunting opportunities?

FFL expresses that concern and says they are seeking to restore “fair chase back into the Flyway.” Goins is pushing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to “prohibit the deliberate modification of an agricultural crop that is not part of the normal agricultural practices for the purpose of attracting migratory birds for hunting or for any other reason,” according to the FFL web site.

Goins even gained a sympathetic ear from Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA), a fellow hunter who is also concerned about declining waterfowl numbers in Louisiana. Abraham wrote a letter to the acting director of the USFWS asking the agency to look into the practice of flooding corn.

There’s no question the number of private landowners building seasonal impoundments has increased. Even the USFWS floods standing corn on national wildlife refuges. It’s now common practice in duck-rich areas like the Eastern Shore. Many outfitters and duck clubs rely on it. Unless something changes, that acreage is only going to increase.

Even if Goins and his supporters are successful in changing baiting regulations and or even banning hunting over or near flooded corn, the argument will likely shift to other manipulated waterfowl habitat. Tens of thousands of acres of forests are flooded with shallow water for the sole purpose of attracting ducks in Missouri and Arkansas. Much of that flooding takes place on state and federal lands.

National wildlife refuges manage wetlands to attract and hold ducks, and countless landowners plant such crops as millet and smartweed in the spring and then flood it in the fall. These moist-soil impoundments also attract gobs of waterfowl.

Will those practices be the next on the list for FFL and other hunters looking to level the playing field? That likely depends on how many birds fly south in the coming years, which most experts say isn’t affected by flooded agriculture.

Feature image via Phil Kahnke.

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