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Diminishing ducks

AN apparent decline in the number of wild ducks in North America is cause for concern. Donald Duck isn't the only one of his kind that is a valuable resource. The yearly migrations of ducks and other waterfowl are the basis of two activities that contribute millions yearly to the economy -- bird watching and hunting. Besides, anyone who visits a municipal park that has a pond or lake is familiar with the ducks, mostly colorful mallards, which visitors delight to feed or just observe.

Wildlife officials say the recent decline in the number of ducks migrating along the four major American flyways apparently began around 1980. Before that time as many as 100 million ducks were migrating to Canada in spring and to the Deep South in late fall; some 62 million are projected to migrate this year, down 22 percent from 1984. Apparently most affected are mallards and pintails, but of the 10 ``key'' duck species, nine are declining in number.

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Overhunting is not the cause of the problem, say wildlife officials, but lowering the daily limit a hunter can bag could be a temporary measure for maintaing present numbers. Tentative plans by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and state agencies to set such a lower limit should be carried out.

Loss of wetlands areas is the chief cause for the drop in the number of ducks, particularly wetlands in Montana and the Dakotas and the hardwood bottomlands of Arkansas and Louisiana. Some half-million acres of wetlands disappear each year, says a wildlife agency spokesman, most of it drained for agricultural purposes.

A number of public agencies and private groups (Ducks Unlimited, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Audubon Society are prominent among the latter) have programs for acquiring or protecting wetlands. The federal program run by the Fish and Wildlife Service uses funds from the annual sale of $7 federal duck stamps, which all hunters must purchase. Activities supported by the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund also help preserve wetlands. But with land costs continuing high, the number of we tland acres purchased in the last few years has dropped. This year, with $15 million from duck stamps and money from other sources, $35 million is available for the program.

Many nonhunters purchase the colorful duck stamps each year as a way of supporting habitat protection. A Fish and Wildlife source says that collections of the stamps (which are not postage stamps) grow in value over the years.

It's an inexpensive way to help preserve a kind of wildlife that is part of America's folklore.

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