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A voice for ducks and geese

John Devney is the senior vice president for Delta Waterfowl, a conservation and research group with U.S. headquarters in Bismarck. A native of Mahtomedi, Minn., Devney is a graduate of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., and has been w...

John Devney
John Devney and his black Lab, Seamus, wade through a North Dakota duck slough during an October 2008 waterfowl excursion. Senior vice president of Delta Waterfowl in Bismarck, Devney said his passion for waterfowl hunting has a lot to do with the tradition and the diversity of opportunities the pursuit offers. (Delta Waterfowl photo)

John Devney is the senior vice president for Delta Waterfowl, a conservation and research group with U.S. headquarters in Bismarck.

A native of Mahtomedi, Minn., Devney is a graduate of St. John's University in Collegeville, Minn., and has been with Delta since 1998.

In advance of the Kellys Slough Chapter of Delta Waterfowl's annual banquet Sept. 24, Devney talked about the group's mission and waterfowl hunting prospects for the coming North Dakota season with Herald Outdoors writer Brad Dokken.

Here's an edited transcript of that conversation:

Q. What's the outlook for the coming waterfowl season?

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A. A year ago, it was pretty grim. We had lots and lots of snow last winter but going into spring, I was concerned we weren't going to have enough moisture to recharge our wetlands just because we were so dry. But all that snow coupled with fast breakup and good precipitation through June has, at least for the Dakotas portion of the prairie breeding grounds, it's in the best condition it's been in a decade. I think the breeding effort was remarkable.

Q. Delta sent out a news release last week indicating the U.S. side of the Prairie Pothole Region now produces more ducks than the Canadian side. What's at work there?

A. There appears to be a paradigm shift where breeding densities in the Dakotas tend to be very high. If you look at where things are in the Dakotas, it's because we've got intact native grasslands, we've got CRP, albeit less than a few years ago, our wetland loss rate is much lower than prairie Canada and all of that makes for a good landscape.

Q. Does loss of land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program still loom as a potential threat?

A. I think so. Everybody in the conservation community -- Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever, Delta -- have been advocating for a general CRP signup, and both the past administration and this administration are trying to get total CRP acres below the cap. The good news is the Farm Service Agency last year did adjust rental rates upward very significantly, and I think the reason we saw declining participation in CRP was a run-up in commodity prices, with a commensurate run-up in cash rental rates, and reimbursement for CRP rental rates lagged that process. The market was quicker to respond than CRP, and it became too large of a gap for producers. The key is we're going to need a new general signup to keep the program robust.

Q. Delta has long been known for promoting waterfowl research. What are some of the key research initiatives currently under way?

A. The predator management research continues to be very high priority. This year, the project focus was to trap areas where cover was less abundant with more intensively cultivated landscapes and, at least for this year, putting on hold those areas in that sort of moderate grass cover range. I don't have very specific results because it's all preliminary, but we saw very positive results there. Highly cultivated landscapes with lots of wetlands, especially in northeastern North Dakota, attract high numbers of breeding pairs but scarce nesting cover, so those were the areas we were targeting.

The research program continues to be very diverse, taking on a big range of topics. We've got a student at Utah State trying to build a population model for scaup to infer what's causing scaup declines.

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We just did a social science project looking at landowner attitudes toward waterfowl conservation in the Dakotas and Minnesota. If we're going to have the landscape we need for breeding ducks in the prairies, the greatest chance of success is to make sure we have good information to formulate good public policy.

Q. Youth hunting continues to be a focus as hunter numbers decline nationally. Where does Delta fit into promoting youth hunting opportunities?

A. Right now, our best guess is we're going to have 110 youth hunts, both across the U.S. and Canada -- 40 different youth hunts with Delta in Canada and 70 in the U.S. The vast majority of those are hosted, mentored and run by our chapters, and so our chapters deserve the lion's share of the credit for that, and basically the way the Delta fundraising chapter system works is those folks have the opportunity to direct or retain up to 25 percent of those proceeds. That is the funding mechanism these folks use to have the resources to put on these mentored youth hunts. But that's a pretty significant youth accomplishment in just a few years.

Q. The local Delta chapter has their banquet coming up in a few days. How important are these banquets to promoting Delta's initiatives?

A. At Delta, obviously raising money for Delta's programs is very important. No. 2, our chapters are involved in things well beyond their fundraising activity. We need their fundraising to be strong, but our chapters across the continent are involved in things like youth hunts, youth fairs, nesting structures, banding, hands-on work in conservation programs, and they're also the eyes and ears for big policy issues.

Q. How many chapters does Delta have?

A. Right now, we're going to finish with 260 to 270 chapters all across the U.S. and Canada. Our total membership would be just under 50,000 right now. And that's way up. In 1998 when I started, Delta had eight fundraising banquets, so it's been a huge difference.

Q. Any idea what's behind that growth?

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A. I think it's just a better awareness of who Delta is. Delta didn't have much of an outreach effort until the late '90s, and the primary reason for that is Delta didn't have a membership program until the mid-'90s. It was almost totally internally privately funded. As Delta started looking at the challenges, Delta understood we needed to have a membership we could represent. It's hard to affect public policy when you have 2,000 people.

Q. Not growing up in North Dakota, do you think the people here take the waterfowl opportunities they have for granted?

A. I think the appreciation for the resource is probably much higher today than it was 10-15 years ago, and the interest from outside the state has helped draw attention. So I think that's starting to change a little bit. Ultimately, if we're going to preserve these landscapes, the people that live here have to be vested in them.

Q. What is it about waterfowl hunting that keeps you coming back?

A. I think one of the things I really treasure about waterfowl hunting is how diverse the resource is. I've always loved ducks, I've always been fascinated about the biology and the behavior, but I think it's that diversity that's so rich. I can access that within 60 miles of my office. There's just so much richness to waterfowl hunting ... the tradition, the different cultures that exist with waterfowl hunting. I can wake up and take a different waterfowl adventure every time I get up.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Reach him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 148; or send e-mail to bdokken@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: HUNTING
Brad Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and has been the Grand Forks Herald's outdoors editor since 1998.

Besides his role as an outdoors writer, Dokken has an extensive background in northwest Minnesota and Canadian border issues and provides occasional coverage on those topics.

Reach him at bdokken@gfherald.com, by phone at (701) 780-1148 or on Twitter at @gfhoutdoor.
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