A couple of weeks ago, some concerned citizens, or maybe more accurately concerned ethical hunters, came in to the DNR office. They had taken photos of a dead hen mallard whose webbed feet had been wrapped with pieces of duct tape. These guys did the right thing; they left things as they saw them, took a couple digital photos, noted the location, and reported the incident to the DNR violator hotline at (800) TIP-WDNR.
I had a good idea what had happened, but I waited for the conservation warden to investigate. The warden was out there within an hour, and confirmed my suspicions. This was actually not a violation at all, but a mistake on the part of someone legally training their hunting dogs.
It is legal to train your hunting dog with live birds in Wisconsin with the proper license and under strict regulations. A bird dog training license allows the possession and use of captive-bred quail, partridge, mallard ducks and pheasants. They have to send the license application to me for review, and they have to tell me where they will train, and I send them a license with instructions and restrictions. The captive birds they use have to be treated humanely and kept under sanitary conditions, with adequate space, shade, food and fresh water.
When training a duck dog, you send the dog into the water to look for a live duck you released earlier. The dog comes back with the duck, alive and unharmed. One duck can be used repeated times under this scenario, but only if it is a captive duck that you can keep from flying or swimming away. DNR requires that these birds be rendered flightless with wing clipping, and putting tape on the feet makes the duck swim more slowly and with difficulty, more accurately simulating a duck that was shot and not killed by a hunter. More than likely, this hen mallard was humanely killed after being injured by the retrieving dog, and the trainer forgot to take it along at the end of their training session.
This may seem like an inhumane activity, but training is extremely important. In duck hunting, we estimate a crippling loss of 20 percent, meaning one of every five ducks that get shot, one is crippled and not recovered by the hunter. These numbers can be improved with a well-trained dog.
My chocolate Labrador retriever, Hershey, is not extremely well trained; I trained her myself. However, she has been recovering cripples her entire life. When working for the Minnesota DNR, I would bring her along to work as a puppy, and the warden and I would use her to help hunters find injured geese. Many youth waterfowl hunt weekends she and I have mentored new hunters who need to learn when to take the best shot, going on long and complicated retrieves. We have also patrolled marshes after opening day hunts, looking for crippled waterfowl that were too sneaky for other hunters to find.
Hershey has had a lot of practice over the last six years, augmented with good hunting instincts. Still, last year when I tried to get her to help a couple guys in a local marsh find a duck that I saw them knock down, she got confused and tired. She started to panic, and I had to jump in and hoist her back into the boat. If she had gotten a pre-season refresher and more conditioning, she could have found that bird for certain. That duck was never recovered.
This year, we re-vamped our training schedule because we both have aged, gained some weight and lost some skill. Throwing dummies or tennis balls is good exercise, but is not at all like chasing and catching a live, feather-covered duck with sharp toenails while doing the doggie paddle.
Having a well-trained dog can make hunting more enjoyable, and gives hunters a chance to promptly recover and humanely kill a crippled bird.
Jeremy Holtz is a wildlife biologist with the Wisconsin DNR in Rhinelander, and writes a weekly column in the Star Journal. To contact him, call (715) 365-8999.