Ted Nichols, Wildlife Biologist
Jeremiah Heise, Seasonal Wildlife Technician
Orrin Jones, Seasonal Biologist
Waterfowl hunting in New Jersey is a diverse recreational activity. Garden State waterfowlers can pursue 28 species of ducks and five species of geese in a variety of habitats from small beaver ponds to the Atlantic Ocean. The New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife sets duck seasons within federal guidelines. The current, 60-day duck season structure in Atlantic Flyway states including New Jersey must occur between the last Saturday in September and the last Sunday in January with no more than two season splits within each zone.
Selecting hunting season dates for migratory game birds is a balance between science and social factors. The challenge for state wildlife agencies is to develop migratory game bird season dates that conform to federal frameworks yet account for migration patterns, average weather conditions, hunting traditions and the preferences of their hunters. Because of the diversity of habitats waterfowlers hunt, time spent pursuing additional quarry (e.g.: deer, striped bass), competition with work schedules and other conflicts, it is not surprising that many hunters have different opinions on waterfowl season date selections.
This diversity of opinions can make selecting annual waterfowl season dates challenging and at times contentious. One of Fish and Wildlife’s primary goals is to select dates that satisfy the majority of the state’s waterfowl hunters, recognizing that season date selections will not satisfy all waterfowl hunters. The best way to ascertain hunters’ preferences is to conduct an unbiased, statistically valid survey of hunters who pursue waterfowl in the state. In order to better serve the state’s duck hunters, Fish and Wildlife conducted this type of survey during the winter of 2012–13.
The primary objectives of the survey were to measure the importance of several elements annually considered when setting waterfowl seasons and also to determine hunters’ preferences for duck season frameworks within each of the state’s three waterfowl zones. Surveys were sent via U.S. mail to a random sample of 1,080 individuals who received Harvest Information Program (HIP) certifications in New Jersey during the 2011–12 hunting season and who indicated that they hunted ducks during the previous year. The sampling rate was 16 percent for individuals who had hunted ducks. The survey response was 40 percent.
Nearly half (48 percent) of duck hunters only hunted in one zone while 8 percent of respondents hunted ducks in all three zones (Figure 1). The most common zone crossover occurred between the South and Coastal Zones.
Hunters were also asked in which zone they hunted ducks most frequently; we used this response as a cross-reference when analyzing season framework preferences within each zone.
Hunters ranked how important eight particular elements were to them in the annual consideration of waterfowl seasons. Hunters ranked the desire to maximize the number of Saturdays within the season, as well as to have opening days and closing days occur on Saturdays as high importance. Conversely, there was little support to have opening days occur on weekdays. Hunters indicated that it was very important that duck seasons be open to include Thanksgiving as well as the Christmas to New Year holiday period. Waterfowl hunters did not rank potential conflicts with other hunting seasons (e.g. deer) as being important. Hunters indicated that overlapping duck seasons with Canada goose seasons as somewhat important, even if it meant fewer goose hunting days in January.
For each of the three waterfowl zones (North, South, Coastal), hunters were presented with three choices for a duck season structure and asked to identify which season structure they preferred. The choices within each zone were the season structures that have been most frequently suggested by various waterfowl hunting organizations over the past several years. In all zones, one choice was to maintain the recent season structure which was described for each zone. For each zone, we analyzed results separately for all respondents as well as for hunters who indicated that they hunted in that particular zone most frequently.
In this article, we present hunter preference results from individuals who indicated that they hunted most in that particular zone. For example, results from the Coastal Zone are from individuals who hunted ducks most frequently in that zone. It is appropriate to examine respondents from individuals who hunt most often in a particular zone for three reasons:
In the Coastal Zone, the majority of hunters (by a 5:4 margin) preferred the option to hunt later into January over options to have traditional or more hunting days during the first season split in November (Figure 2). Similarly, the option to hunt later into January by taking days from the first split was preferred by the most (44 percent) South Zone hunters (Figure 3). The two other options received less support as a first preference in the South Zone.
North Zone duck season preferences were the least clear. Thirty-eight percent of respondents who duck hunted primarily in the North Zone preferred an option to hunt later in the season by cutting the first split in October. However, about half of hunters were nearly equally split between retaining two Saturdays in the first split and an option to make the first split even longer. As such, North Zone duck hunters seemed to prefer to retain at least two Saturdays in the first split when compared to moving hunting days from October into January by about a 5:4 ratio (Figure 4). The ambiguity in North Zone season preferences is likely partially attributable to the recent, frequent changes to the North Zone season structure. The North Zone season structure was changed in three of the last four years.
Although Fish and Wildlife and the Fish and Game Council receive input from hunters on duck season dates throughout the year, it cannot be certain that these comments are representative of the majority of duck hunters. Statistically designed surveys are important for obtaining unbiased data regarding the preferences of user groups. The survey results weighed heavily in 2013–14 duck season date selections and will be considered in future years. Although some hunters may not be satisfied with 2013 season dates, it is reasonable to keep the season date structure similar for several years before considering season structure changes. Repeating a hunter opinion survey at periodic intervals (e.g. every three to five years) is also prudent.
Full reports on the 2012–13 Duck Hunter Survey and an additional report, Patterns of Duck Hunting Activity and Success in New Jersey 1999–2011, can be found on the Waterfowl and Migratory Birds in New Jersey page of Fish and Wildlife website.
Regulations in red are new this year.
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