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Hunting Regulations

Setting Hunting Regulations

United States

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has the responsibility and authority in the U.S. to establish annual hunting seasons for migratory birds. This authority is granted under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. The FWS sets outside parameters called frameworks (opening and closing date, daily bag and possession limit, season length) within which states must select their hunting seasons.

  1. Hunting seasons are actually closed each year until formally opened by the FWS.
  2. The FWS publishes a Notice of Intent to Establish Open Seasons in the Federal Register in June of the year prior to season implementation. It also discusses leading issues and the potential for major changes.
  3. The Flyway Technical Committees and Council meet between in late summer/early fall (mid-August-early Oct) to consider changes in hunting regulations for webless migratory game birds (mourning dove, sandhill crane, snipe, woodcock, etc.) and waterfowl seasons. This meeting focuses on all migratory game bird hunting seasons that open after 1 September of the following year. For example, the Central flyway met during late-August 2017 to discuss and make recommendations pertaining to the 2018-19 hunting seasons that open 1 September 2018. The Council forwards its recommendations to the Service Regulations Committee (SRC) of the FWS. The SRC consists of 4 Regional Directors of the FWS plus a Chairperson.
  4. The FWS publishes specific proposals for hunting seasons in the Federal Register in December. Public comments are accepted on these proposals and a Final Rule published, usually in February.
  5. The Flyway Technical Committees (often only the waterfowl technical committee) meet ahead of the March Flyway Council meetings to discuss potential changes to harvest management strategies, funding proposals and reports, and other management issues not directly related to season setting recommendations.
  6. States select their hunting seasons for migratory bird hunting seasons in April within frameworks provided by the FWS. A state can be more restrictive, but not more liberal than federal frameworks.

Surveys to determine population status of migratory birds are conducted throughout the year. Some of these data are two years old when used in consideration of hunting regulations. Others, such as the May Breeding Pair and Habitat Survey for ducks are collected the year prior to weighing into management decisions. While annual changes in some populations are potentially important, long-term trends are given more weight. Long-term experience using these population and harvest data provide greater confidence in the decision making process.

The 2016 hunting seasons were the first to use the single process of setting hunting regulations a year in advance. Formerly, seasons were set in two parts (Early and Late Seasons) within the same year.


Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC), with input from the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), has the authority in Canada to establish hunting seasons for migratory birds under the same Treaty.

  1. In Canada, hunting seasons are addressed biennially, that is, every two years.
  2. The CWS produces a status report in November so that the ECCC can review population and habitat status every year.
  3. Hunting season proposals are submitted every other December for the following year.
  4. A public comment period occurs in January and February.
  5. Final proposals are due in March.
  6. Final rules are selected in June.
  7. Final hunting season regulations are made public in July, remaining in place for two years.

Adaptive Harvest Management

Blue-winged teal drake

For many years, duck harvest regulations were based on annual discussions that were often driven more by opinion than science. Managers from different parts of the country had differing opinions not only based on the wants and needs of their hunters, but also their connection to protecting populations of birds and their ties to different habitats. There were also differing opinions regarding whether harvest directly impacted populations and how harvest regulations impacted harvest. While differing opinions still occur, they are no longer directly part of the decision making process.

Starting in 1995, waterfowl managers started using Adaptive Harvest Management (AHM) to guide the regulatory process. Gone were the days of attempting to “tinker” seasons by adding a few days at a time or changing bag limits by a little here and a little there. Moreover, managers could collectively determine objectives for managing populations ahead of actually making management decisions.

The science behind AHM used population models to determine “about” how much harvest mid-continent mallard populations could handle given population size and recruitment. The outputs were different regulatory packages (e.g., liberal or restrictive) for different scenarios based on expected levels of harvest for each package. The deciding factors were mainly the size of the breeding population of mid-continent mallards and the number of May ponds in Prairie Canada.

The up-front, known structure of the process has allowed for more objective decision making by managers while also acknowledging uncertainty in measurement of populations and exactness of harvest delivery. It also allowed for the potential to incorporate “learning” into the process. Hot topics of the 1990s revolved around the effects of harvest and density dependence on populations. So, instead of one single model driving the decision making process, four competing predictive models were used to determine the optimal regulatory package. Not knowing which model would perform best, their outputs were weighted by predictive accuracy, starting with equal weights in the first year.

Every year, the mechanics of models are updated using current biological information stemming from 3 critical monitoring efforts: breeding population and habitat surveys to determine their status, survival and harvest rate information from preseason banding efforts, and size of harvest determined by harvest surveys. It is the continual updating and refinement of predictive models and periodic review of objectives driving the process that make this regulatory paradigm “adaptive”.