If you want to talk to duck hunters, you have to go where the ducks are.
For an aspiring wildlife manager at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, that meant lots of early mornings at a local duck hunting hot spot perched nearby along the mighty Mississippi River. Ethan Dittmer’s work could help local wildlife managers better understand how hunters use the area, and also might reveal the best ways to get feedback from them.
Filling in the data gaps
Dittmer, a junior in the zoology degree program, came up with the idea for a project studying hunters at Oakwood Bottoms Greentree Reservoir in the Shawnee National Forest. Created in 2015, the 1,200-acre refuge is operating on a three- to five-year trial basis.
Up until now, no formal duck harvest data had been gathered at the refuge, prompting Dittmer, an avid duck hunter in his own right, to propose gathering it himself.
Working under the supervision of SIU doctoral student John O’Connell and Associate Professor Michael Eichholz, Dittmer focused his project on gathering duck harvest information and other feedback from hunters, which could in turn help managers make informed management decisions.
Undergraduate research idea gets big support
Last February, Dittmer, along with other members of SIU’s Ducks Unlimited student chapter, met with staff and fellow hunters at Oakwood Bottoms.
“We discussed the effectiveness of the refuge with staff and fellow hunters and received mixed reviews,” Dittmer said. “Some believed that it has been successful in improving harvest while others were unsure. No formal harvest data had been collected recently before the refuge was put in place, and has not been since its creation.”
Dittmer took his idea for a survey to Eichholz and O’Connell, who encouraged him to pursue it and provided guidance on different survey methods. The trio developed a research project that included a pre-paid mail-in harvest paper survey and an online survey. The mail-in survey involved Dittmer placing survey cards on hunters’ vehicles while the online survey included URL/QR code signs at 10 popular access points for hunting the areas.
Field work involved many cold mornings
The field work required Dittmer to go out each day of the 60-day season, alternating every other day between “online days” and “paper days.”
“Online days” saw him start his work 15 minutes prior to sunrise, driving a standardized route and counting vehicles and recording locations. This allowed him to create a relative index for online participation. “Paper days” saw him start on the route at the same time while also placing surveys on hunters’ vehicles and recording their locations.
“The best way to evaluate the refuge area is from hunter harvest and feedback, which this survey collects,” Dittmer said. “I hope to learn which type of survey, or combination of the two, is most suited for sites that do not mandate information from those who use the area, like Oakwood Bottoms.”
Project could have long-term effects
The U.S. Forest Service funded the initial proposal for the project, which included sampling for 30 to 60 days of the season. Following this initial funding, Eichholz, along with Ducks Unlimited, provided additional funding, which paid for three additional student technicians to help with the project.
“This helped other SIU students to get experience gathering field data and accurately recording it, and they were very important for the project,” Dittmer said.
Dittmer, who completed the field work for his project in early January, said it’s important to monitor the effects of any management change, especially one that is solely aimed at harvest success for hunters of the area.
“As far as preliminary results, we have been surprised at the differing participation between the two survey types so far,” he said. “We have not been able to review the surveys yet, but we are looking forwarded to further review of our results and anticipate this will lead to very useful findings.”
Undergrad research a staple at SIU
And doing undergraduate research – something that SIU emphasizes – has given him a leg-up on his future plans, providing important experience in collecting and analyzing data, reviewing scientific literature and designing research projects.
“Those are skills that will be useful in future research,” he said. “I’m glad to have done so during my undergraduate years so I am better prepared to do so in my future. I’m looking forward to continuing my education in the waterfowl management field and this project will better prepare me for my professional career.”