Waterfowling's Tug of WarA power play could break apart the carefully crafted system of setting waterfowl hunting seasons.
By Michael Furtman. Illustration by Michael Schmidt©
It was an end run to reallocate the resource, a breach in protocol and process, all based upon the use of raw power. Period." So says Tim Bremicker, chief of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Section of Wildlife, about a congressional power play that has angered northern duck hunters.
What so upsets Bremicker is U.S. Sen. Trent Lott's success last year in extending the duck season for the southern part of the Mississippi Flyway. Using political might and subverting an otherwise open public process, the Republican senator from Mississippi added two weeks to the season (which has been 60 days the past three years) by including it as a rider in the federal budget bill. After years of lobbying for a later-running duck season in the Mississippi Flyway (which includes Minnesota), six southern states, led by Mississippi, finally got their wish. Their duck season could end Jan. 31 instead of Jan. 17.
Even though Lott agreed to knock nine days off the season for these southern states to offset the increased harvest from the extension, the damage was done. The powerful Senate majority leader had altered what had been a fair and biologically based process of allocating waterfowl hunting opportunity.
Normally, waterfowl hunting season frameworks and bag limits are set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after a lengthy process that includes public participation and consultation with the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific flyway councils -- groups made up of waterfowl biologists and managers from state agencies. These waterfowl specialists examine information on habitat and the breeding population status of ducks and geese, then make recommendations to the USFWS. This process helps ensure sustainable waterfowl numbers and a fair allocation of hunting opportunity. Ultimately, the final hunting season framework is decided by the USFWS. Until last year.
The "fowl" play by Lott didn't go unnoticed. The Minnesota DNR and other state conservation agencies protested loudly. So did both of Minnesota's U.S. senators, whose complaints went as far as the White House. But in the end, the budget bill remained intact, and Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee were offered an extended duck-hunting season.
"I trust the system, but I also trust people to play by the rules," says Bremicker, Minnesota's representative to the Mississippi Flyway Council. "This wasn't playing by rules."
Southern states had for years pushed for a later season. Early in 1998, the USFWS finally agreed to consider the request. Using its normal process, the agency first asked for public comment -- and got it by the bushelful. Almost all opposed the change. All the flyway councils (except the Mississippi council, which was divided) voted against the extension. Based on this intense opposition, the USFWS denied the request.
The refusal took courage. Lott had already threatened the agency. Before the denial, Lott told the Jackson, Miss., Clarion-Ledger that he would deny confirmation of new appointees of the Interior Department, of which the USFWS is a part, unless he was granted the later season. When the USFWS announced it would consider the extension, Lott thought he had a done deal, and moved ahead with confirmations. After the USFWS later denied the season extension, Lott accused the agency of reneging on a deal.
"This is an issue of fundamental fairness," he declared in a press release from his office. Officials of the USFWS "have mistreated the people of Mississippi."
Denied his way in a public process, Lott pushed his bill through Congress the way so many special-interest bills find their way into law: He attached the season extension as a rider to the all-encompassing federal budget bill.
A Matter of Perspective
Where you live has a lot to do with how you view duck management. Northern hunters live and hunt in the region where ducks nest. In the fall, tens of millions of ducks scattered across thousands of square miles in Minnesota and neighboring states and provinces trickle into the Mississippi Flyway, as if into the mouth of a huge funnel.
Southern duck hunters, on the other hand, are at the bottom of the funnel. Even in years of poor duck production, waterfowl pour out of the funnel by the millions.
"Here in the Upper Midwest," says Roger Holmes, director of the Minnesota DNR's Division of Fish and Wildlife, "we're more conservative on managing waterfowl because declines in duck numbers are far more apparent to Northern hunters. Duck production states also have to be careful to not overharvest the local breeding birds. The Southern states see large concentrations of waterfowl even in bad years, and it's understandable that hunters there might think there is no end to them. They tend to push for liberal seasons and bag limits."
Because much duck hunting in the South occurs on private or leased lands, which is expensive, some hunters believe they deserve a larger return on their investment. As Southern wildlife agencies point out, duck clubs spend enormous amounts of money to preserve or improve waterfowl wintering habitat. Without good hunting, Southern waterfowl managers fear that money for habitat will disappear. But should money determine waterfowl seasons?
"Those arguments about dollars have always been there," says Rollin Sparrowe, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former chief of the USFWS's Office of Migratory Bird Management. "Those were the arguments against restrictive limits and short seasons during the bad years -- that people wouldn't go out and funds would disappear. None of the arguments is without some substance, but should they be the major part of the service's decision about setting up hunting seasons?"
This North-South difference in perspective has led to deep divisions in the Mississippi Flyway Council. The council has the dubious distinction of being the only one with separate North and South regulations committees. In fact, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi dropped out of the council three decades ago, and consented to return only if the regulatory committee were divided, with each unit able to send separate recommendations to the USFWS.
"While we disagree on certain things," says Jeff Lawrence, the Minnesota DNR's waterfowl specialist who sits on the Upper Regulatory Committee, "I have a lot of respect for some of the Southern waterfowl biologists. There's just some fundamental differences on how to manage this shared resource. For instance, there's a much stronger belief down there that hunting mortality is compensatory [replaces natural mortality and doesn't affect duck numbers] rather than additive [reduces the breeding population]. From a scientific standpoint, the answer to that question is still unclear. How you choose to manage ducks depends upon where you fall on this argument."
A Matter of Fairness
If Minnesota hunters and duck managers favor conservative regulations, they also believe strongly in the equitable distribution of hunting opportunity. The abundance of public land in Minnesota ensures an opportunity to hunt, even to people without land or money to lease land.
"In our neck of the woods, resource distribution is democratic," says Bremicker. "We have been absolutely adamant in terms of maintaining equal and fair access to our resources and preserving our public lands and waters."
Despite its attempts to fairly distribute duck hunting opportunities within the state, Minnesota remains disadvantaged by its northern latitude. No matter how long a season the USFWS offers the states, Minnesota's season essentially lasts one month. To give young ducks a chance to grow, the Minnesota season can't begin much before Oct. 1, and lakes here begin to ice over in early November. The warmer South, however, can take full advantage of the 60 days granted in recent years by the USFWS.
Granting those states an extension isn't fair, argue Northern hunters, who believe that the deck already is stacked in favor of Southern hunters.
"Northern hunters look at this [extended season] and say, ÔHow can this happen? How can opportunity be reallocated to states that are already benefiting under the longer season frameworks?'" says Bremicker.
Southern hunters argue that they need an extended season because it takes a few months for ducks to reach their waters. Many believe the best hunting doesn't begin until January.
"The season is over before the ducks ever arrive," Sen. Lott told the Clarion-Ledger, echoing Southern hunters and agencies.
Look at the Numbers
Do the ducks really arrive too late to provide good hunting, as some Southerners claim?
"All you have to do is look at the harvest figures to know that Southern hunters get their fair share of the ducks," says Mike McGinty, executive director of the Minnesota Waterfowl Association.
Minnesota kills more ducks than Mississippi because it fields more duck hunters than any other state. However, a Southern hunter on average shoots more ducks per season and per day than a Northern hunter does.
And this difference has been growing. The last time ducks were as numerous as they are now -- in the 1970s -- northern Mississippi Flyway hunters killed seven ducks apiece per year, while Southerners took around 15. In 1993, after flyway seasons and limits were liberalized in response to increased duck numbers, the disparity grew more lopsided. While each Northerner now kills on average six ducks per year, each Southerner takes more than 20. For Northern hunters, that works out to one duck for every two days of hunting. For Southern hunters, it's three ducks per two days afield. In 1997, the North fielded 50 percent of the total hunters in the flyway and took just 27 percent of the total duck harvest. Meanwhile the South, with only 30 percent of the total hunters, shot 60 percent of the ducks. Mid-latitude states, such as Missouri, accounted for the rest.
Southern hunters have also benefited disproportionately from changing habitat conditions. Many Northern hunters depend partially on ducks from Canada, where breeding habitat continues to be destroyed by agriculture and wetland drainage. Fewer Canadian ducks now pass through Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Yet thanks to conservation efforts in North Dakota and South Dakota, duck production there has increased dramatically. These birds add greatly to the bag in the southern end of the Mississippi Flyway, but rarely contribute to Minnesota's hunting.
"If you were doing this on the fairness of allocation of dead ducks," says Sparrowe, "then those parts of the country that kill more birds per hunter would have more restrictive seasons so that other people got their share. But waterfowl harvest management is not predicated on giving equal shares of ducks to people. The system is designed to provide as equal an opportunity as possible."
In other words, though no system can provide all states equal duck hunting opportunities due to differing habitat and weather conditions, the system attempts to make it as equitable as possible given these constraints. Giving more opportunity to those states that can already take full advantage of a 60-day season and that enjoy high per-hunter harvest rates further tips a scale that some think is already unbalanced.
So What's the Big Deal?
In 1994 the USFWS adopted a science-based method of setting seasons and limits called adaptive harvest management. That process was designed to reduce interstate squabbles, provide stable frameworks under which to evaluate the effect of hunting on duck numbers, and allow hunters of various states as close to an equal number of days afield each season as habitat and weather conditions permit. The process works by allowing the USFWS to select from a range of predetermined season lengths and bag limits based on a formula into which biologists factor spring habitat conditions and current duck numbers.
"We're worried that other states, seeing how successful Mississippi was, will push for similar exceptions," says McGinty, echoing the concerns of many other waterfowl experts. This, he points out, could subvert the process of setting seasons and limits, leading to overharvest and booms and busts in duck numbers.
Politicizing the regulation-setting process might even make hunting more vulnerable to attack by animal rights groups. In the 1980s animal rights activists sued the USFWS to stop duck hunting, arguing that the agency lacked information that proved hunting wasn't harming duck populations. Waterfowl managers responded by developing the current biology-driven process.
"If we begin to tamper with this process," says Sparrowe, "it opens us up to questions about whether we are doing right by the duck resource. If you start making decisions in the back room, you invite legal challenge."
For now, the extension debate has been decided. The USFWS has offered the modified season for a period of four more years to the three southern states -- Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee -- that took advantage of the "Lott option."
The question being pondered by some waterfowl managers and hunters, though, is this: Will this be an isolated incident, or will politics cause the regulatory process, or even the flyway council system, to collapse?
"Virtually every state in the country has something in the waterfowl regulations that they don't like, but it is a matter of give and take," says Holmes. "We have a system in place to reach consensus and to consider what's best for the resource, and that's the way it should be."
The damage hasn't yet been done to the duck population, but the public's faith in the process has suffered. Summing up what many hunters and most waterfowl managers believe, Lawrence puts it this way: "Duck management does need to address social issues, but it should be most strongly based on biology, and we have a mechanism for that. It shouldn't be done based on politics."
Michael Furtman is a free-lance writer from Duluth. His latest book is Ruffed Grouse: Woodland Drummer, published by NorthWord Press, 1-800-328-0590.