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Waterfowl Banding Program and the Return to “Normal”
By Mark Koneff and Phil Thorpe
Well, after two years of waterfowl banding operations being restricted in Canada due to the pandemic, the Migratory Bird Program was anxious to return this year to fulfill our treaty responsibilities as a partner, along with the Canadian Wildlife Service, in the Western Canada Cooperative Banding Program. This year we ran five banding stations across prairie and boreal areas of west-central Canada. This was less than our normal complement of eight to nine stations, however, after three years being unattended, some of our more remote camps needed inspection and will likely require repairs and stocking prior to re-opening. We should be ready to roll in those areas by next year. This did, however, offer the opportunity to explore a new station that we have had interest in for some time in northern Alberta.
The partial re-start in Canada also allowed us to continue working at some of the domestic stations we initiated over the past two years and build on progress we made in the U.S. prairies in conjunction with National Wildlife Refuges and state fish and wildlife agencies. This year we ran three stations in Montana and the Dakotas as well as one station in Maine. We look forward to continuing to work there with Refuge and state personnel and to, hopefully, establish self-sustaining stations and new station leaders for the future.
Prolonged wet conditions across many portions of the prairie waterfowl breeding habitats prior to the dry conditions in 2020 and 2021 had altered some of the semi-permanent wetlands that traditionally attracted staging waterfowl, greatly reducing their use by post-breeding waterfowl and reducing our banding success in those areas. After a couple of years of drawdown, water has returned to much of the U.S. prairies and portions of the Canadian prairies. We suspect that, over time, some of these historically successful banding stations will again be attracting large numbers of post-breeding waterfowl and can be considered for resumption of banding operations.
For the decade or so prior to the pandemic we had also struggled at times to band the numbers of critical species, such as mallards, that are needed to inform harvest decisions. Some of these challenges are believed to be related to phenological shifts with warm weather persisting well into August at many of our prairie stations. This reduces interest in bait by some species such as mallards and decreases trapping success and the number of bands applied. That said, there are always stations that just have the right water, temperature, and other conditions that produce the high catches of mallards we’re looking for and the winning stations vary from year to year. Every year it’s different, which keeps things interesting.
So all that sounds pretty normal, right? Think again. After two years of managing the confusion and uncertainty of COVID, in 2022 we were also faced with the unprecedented highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) outbreak that started in Atlantic Canada earlier this year and quickly spread across all four Flyways. This outbreak is different from the most recent outbreak in 2014-2015 in the following ways:
- It Caused illness and death in a higher number of bird species,
- It rapidly spread within wild bird populations across a larger geographic region, and
- It is associated with higher mortality rates in wild birds.
Data on the extent and distribution of HPAI in both domestic poultry and wild birds in North America can be found on the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center website. While we always incorporate biosafety and biosecurity measures during banding such as equipment sanitization and personal hygiene measures, heightened measures were developed and implemented this year to reduce the possibility of banding operations contributing to HPAI spread and to protect personnel, the public, and poultry operations which are particularly susceptible to HPAI. We also actively monitored the status of geographic HPAI control zones in Canada that were established by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency around areas with active HPAI transmission. In concert with the Canadian Wildlife Service, we agreed to terminate banding operations if a primary control zone went into effect around an area we are banding. Thankfully our operations were not affected by HPAI this year.
In addition, as we have done in the past, we contributed to national HPAI surveillance efforts in both the U.S. and Canada and collaborated with the U.S. Geological Survey and Canadian Wildlife Service on a pilot study of the effects of bait trapping operations on HPAI transmission rates in the wild.
COVID, and now HPAI, have definitely changed the nature of field work in recent years. Through it all our survey and banding crews have really rise to these new challenges, and the increased complication and workload, to get the job done and maintain the monitoring infrastructure that has served our agency, the public, and the resource so effectively.