Ducks Unlimited helps with Wallula habitat restoration

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WALLULA, Wash. — Chris Bonsignore relished popping up from a goose pit to bag three Canada geese during a morning hunt in a Columbia Basin wheat field.

In the afternoon, with his shotgun put away, Ducks Unlimited’s regional conservation manager beamed even brighter as he showed off DU’s partnership role in restoring nearby wetlands.

“This project will provide nesting and resting habitat to countless waterfowl forever,” he said, standing above hundreds of ducks and geese gathering on Sanctuary Lake in the Wallula Unit of the McNary National Wildlife Refuge.

Then, as though it were a staged Blue Angels flyover, strings of wood ducks began arriving from their feeding forays – flight after flight, setting their wings for the restored wetlands at Sanctuary Lake.

“My gosh, that’s about 500 woodies that just came over us,” Bonsignore said after a few quiet minutes peering through his binoculars. “Amazing.”

That’s DU in a nutshell, said Jason Rounsaville, who coordinates DU’s Northwest volunteers: “Our vision is more wetlands and waterfowl for everyone, and better hunting for waterfowlers.”

Founded in 1937 initially to preserve breeding areas for waterfowl, the wetlands conservation group has completed more than 20,000 projects in North America, conserving nearly 13 million acres.

But the battle is far from over, said Bonsignore, a wildlife biologist.

Although wetlands are incredibly productive habitat for a wide range of wildlife, millions of acres have been drained for agriculture or development, leaving waterfowl high and dry in many areas of North America, he said.

“Hunters will always be the core of DU because they have the passion for waterfowl,” Rounsaville said. “But when we get word out about what we do, people are impressed, hunters and nonhunters alike.”

DU has 2,800 chapters across North America. In fiscal 2012, about 45,000 volunteers organized 3,900 DU events that raised about $50 million for wetlands conservation, said Amy Batson, fundraising operations director at DU’s Memphis headquarters.

Fundraisers include golf, fishing and shooting events, as well as the traditional banquets and auctions.

While philanthropic watchdogs give DU average marks for its fundraising-related expenses, the group gets high marks for getting things done on the ground with only about 3 percent of the fundraising proceeds used for administration.

The key to DU’s success is leveraging the money it raises – as much as 20-to-1– with volunteer hours, grants and partnerships with other groups and local, state and federal agencies, Rounsaville said.

“DU has always had a continent-wide plan,” said Mond Warren, volunteer coordinator for Idaho. “That’s the nature of ducks: 85-95 percent of birds a hunter takes are produced somewhere else.”

Nevertheless, DU has been involved in more projects in local areas than most hunters realize, Rounsaville said.

“We’re criticized by some people for restoring wetlands on private land or public land where hunting isn’t allowed,” he said. “Our projects are science-based. We focus on the areas where we can get the most ducks for our bucks, regardless of whether it’s public or private land. More wetlands are better for everyone.”