With Texas in the middle of a normal August heat wave it is hard to image that duck season is not that far off.
And what better way to kick it off than with the first conservation banquet of the year, Delta Waterfowl's Smith County Chapter's 9th Annual banquet and dinner Friday at Bushman's Celebration Event Center.
While the banquet is the perfect beginning for the duck season, which starts with the early teal season Sept. 12 , it is also an important reminder that hunters play a major role in wildlife conservation not just in their support of issues, but also with their guns in some cases and their checkbook or debit cards.
Nowhere may that be more evident than in waterfowl hunting where habitat on both ends of the flyway is disappearing, and would be going away at an even more rapid clip were it not for conservation dollars.
"I think the thing about waterfowl hunting that is unique you have to look at the conservation achievement of duck hunters. It is duck hunters are the basis of the waterfowl refuge program. It is the duck stamp dollars that pay for that," said John Devney, Delta vice president.
He explained those refuges protect about one-third of the vulnerable wetlands in the United States. It was hunters that last year pushed for an in increase in the cost of the conservation stamp from $15 to $25 to protect even more habitat.
"That is unrivaled," Devney said.
Texas is among the states whose waterfowl programs benefit from partnerships with conservation organizations.
"They allow us to efficiently and cost effectively partner to deliver conservation on the ground. That is unprecedented in the wildlife management community across North America," said Kevin Kraai, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's waterfowl program leader.
The biologist has high praise for Delta's efforts in waterfowl management over the years.
"Delta has long been a leader in waterfowl research and science. They likely have trained and funded more current and future waterfowl biologist than any other entity and have greatly improved our knowledge of waterfowl throughout the continent," Kraai said.
In the case of Delta Waterfowl, it is completely funded by hunter dollars typically from banquets, 25 percent of which remains with the local chapters for projects of their choice. In some cases they provided duck nest boxes or youth hunts. Thus far the Smith County chapter has used its money to sponsor a hunter education class.
Internationally and nationally Delta spends its money researching ways to make duck nesting more efficient to make up for the loss of habitat acreage.
"At Delta we think it is darn near impossible to buy up the prairies," Devney said.
It is this approach to spending donors' dollars that separates Delta, the much smaller organization, from Ducks Unlimited. However, it is not a rivalry as much as it is different missions.
Since the beginning Delta has also been more active in helping keep hunters on the water and in the field through programs like its First Hunt Program, which not only helps get youth afield, but is also targeting college-aged hunters and women.
"Studies have shown if mom hunts or is supportive of hunting their kids are 70 percent more likely to go hunting," Devney noted.
Because it is hunter based the organization also works with states and the government to maintain access to hunting areas. That is a growing issue as waterfowl hunter numbers shrink.
Citing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service surveys, Devney said the number of waterfowl hunters nationwide has decline from a high of 2.5 million nationwide to 1.2 in recent years.
Fortunately, that isn't the case in Texas where waterfowl hunter numbers have been increasing steadily since 2008.
While there are a lot of reasons for the decline around the country, access to wetlands and lakes is a common thread for many.
Delta is also active in legislation both on a national and state level, something that has become more important for waterfowl management as well as hunting opportunity in recent years.
"When it comes to ducks on the landscape level it is all up to public policy. If the last Farm Bill had gone another way we would have lost 70 percent of the protection for production habitat," Devney said.
He added that earlier this week Delta officials were in contact with the Arkansas Game and Fish working on access regulations for the some of the state's wildlife management areas.
"The only people we get money from are duck hunters. We are pretty clear about who we are and who we work for," Devney said.
He added that it is just as important for hunters to stay engaged, whether it is by introducing newcomers to waterfowl hunting or writing letters to government officials about issues involving waterfowl.
Last year's Smith County Delta banquet attracted 250 hunters and raised more than $40,000. With its 25 percent of banquet proceeds the local committee provided a $500 scholarship Mindy Geer of Bullard. It also expects to hold a hunter education class in October. Although the class will be open to everyone, the chapter will pay the cost for students 13 and under.
Tickets for the Delta banquet are $50 for individuals, $80 for couples and $15 for youth. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online at www.deltawaterfowl.org/events.
Bushman's Celebration Event Center is located at 1565 Farm to Market 2493 East, Bullard. Doors open at 5:30 p.m.
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