Dove population remains stable in Western states
By JIM MATTHEWS
The dove population in the Western United States remains stable at about 43 million birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s annual Mourning Dove Population Status report released earlier this month. Hunters shot 1.3 million doves in the West (677,000 in California) last season or about 3 percent of the estimated population.
When compared to the rest of the country, Western hunters shot fewer birds on average and a smaller percent of the total population. On a national basis, the USFWS estimates there are 274 million mourning doves in the nation, and about 13.8 million were taken by hunters last year (about 5 percent of the total population). This is in spite of an increase in the daily limit from 10 to 15 birds and an increase in the possession limits from 20 to 45.
The USFWS switched to a more comprehensive and reliable dove management program in 2013 that allows for better estimates of the population, information on recruitment (number of young produced in relation to the adult population), and total harvest. The current season dates and liberal 15-bird limit are a product of the wildlife professionals being able to make decisions with accurate data. It has become clear the annual harvest is having no impact on the overall dove population, according to the population status report, and it’s likely the liberal bag and possession limits will remain in effect.
The USFWS, with cooperation and data gathered by the state wildlife agency staff, now looks a number of factors to determine the dove population status. It is called the Adaptive Harvest Management system, and mirrors the program used for waterfowl . The system includes the following elements:
-- The Harvest Information Program, HIP for short, is harvest data provided by hunters each year when they purchase a new license. It gives the feds accurate information on total hunter take of birds. This program began nationwide in 1999.
-- Thousands of doves are captured and banded in most of the lower 48 states during July and August each year. There were about 3,500 birds banded in both California and Arizona this past year. Band recovery during hunting seasons provides information on harvest. When the percentage of banded birds killed is compared to the total harvest, an accurate population estimate can be made. Banding began nationally in 2003.
-- Age of doves, representing the percent of young in the population, is determined by the collection of wings of hunter-killed birds. Wings can be aged to determine if they are birds born that spring-summer or in the previous season. This data determines how successful dove nesting was during the season prior to the annual hunt. This became an annual program in 2007
-- All of this data is correlated with the annual Breeding Bird Survey done nationally for all species of birds. This survey has been done since 1966 and shows trends in bird populations but can’t alone provide data on population size.
Prior to the collection of all HIP, banding, and wing data, the USFWS primarily used the mourning dove call-count survey and limited harvest data to provide an annual index of abundance. This survey was done from 1966 through 2013, but discontinued after the more accurate four-tier system was phased in for the 2013 data year. Between 2007, when the first consistent national age data was available, and 2012, the feds compared the new Adaptive Harvest Management system to the old method that utilized call-count data and limited harvest data (collected in conjunction with duck stamp surveys).
The survey data also gathers some interesting information on hunter effort and success. For example, in California, there were 52,600 dove hunters who took to the field last year (and, no, not all of them were in the Imperial Valley). They shot an average of 13 birds each for the whole season, and they put in an average of 2 1/2 days to get those 13 birds. The highest total in the Western Management Unit (which includes Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) was in Arizona, where hunters shot an average of 15.3 doves over 2 3/4 days of hunting. Nationwide, South Carolina hunters shot the most doves, with an average 23 birds for the season, but they hunted about a half-day more per year than California hunters. Worst hunter success states? Montana, Oregon, and Washington hunters shot six or fewer birds on average for the whole season, largely because many birds have already migrated south before the Sept. 1 opening day.
It would be interesting if the USFWS added a question to the survey data: How many shot shells did you shoot to get the birds reported? I’m sure it would be a number to make ammunition makers dance with glee. I feel like I’m on my shotgun game if I get a dove for each four shots. If that’s about average, that means over 55 million shells are fired at doves during the season across the nation. If we were honest about how poorly we shoot, it might be twice that number.
Opening morning, when the happy sound of shotguns popping starts at sun up, I always smile, knowing that I’m taking part in one of the largest participatory events in the world as 800,000 hunters from coast-to-coast kick off dove season. I’m proud to be a part of this tradition.