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Opposition to Sunday waterfowl hunting creates odd alliances

Waterfowl hunting is one of the area’s most popular off-season attractions. Photo: Missy McGaw/NCWRC

This article is reprinted courtesy of the Outer Banks Voice

By Russ Lay on December 12, 2017

A proposed rule change that would allow waterfowl hunting on Sunday in North Carolina has drawn together an odd alliance of conservationists, birdwatchers and a larger-than-expected number of hunting guides and owners of private hunting grounds.

While proponents say it would expand the economic impact of waterfowl hunting to people who miss out on hunting opportunities the other six days of the week, opponents say there are no benefits.

“Adding Sunday to the hunting week will be the last straw for the resource,” said Mike Johnson, a waterfowl management and hunting guide and former Dare County commissioner. “Ducks have wings and they will leave.”

Legislation passed by the General Assembly in June would allow the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission to permit the hunting of ducks, geese and swans on Sunday, pending results of studies on economic, social and biological impacts.

Sixth District Rep. Beverly Boswell, R-Dare, co-sponsored House Bill 559 and voted for final passage in the House on June 29, while First District Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, voted against the measure the same day.

First District Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, voted yes on an earlier version approved by the House, but missed the final vote due to an excused absence.

The commission is holding public meetings this week as part of a research project, according to Wildlife Resources Commission communications director Fairley W. Mahlum.

Mahlum noted that public hearings are held for proposed rules, that no rule changes are being currently proposed and they are only gathering information.

The hearing for northeastern North Carolina was today, Dec. 14, in the Tyrrell County Center/NC Cooperative Extension Building, 407 Martha St. in Columbia.

Other meetings will be held Tuesday in Graham, and Wednesday in Jacksonville and Hickory.

But opponents accuse the Wildlife Resource Commission of downplaying the rule change and the public hearings.

 They claim the commission’s email press releases and website coverage of proposed deer and bear regulation changes have been far more extensive than their efforts to publicize the proposed waterfowl regulation changes.

“We are eager to get input from all outdoor enthusiasts,” said Mahlum. “We’ve been targeting Facebook ads among all types of outdoor enthusiasts, i.e., birders, kayakers, to try and get opinion from as many folks as possible.” 

In fact, there is no information on the commission website about the format or content of the scheduled three-hour public hearings for waterfowl, and links to ancillary information are meager.

A commission staff member did tell a local public information officer that the meeting will consist of a short PowerPoint presentation followed by up to three minutes per person of public comment.

A discussion forum on the proposal is available at https://www.ncmigratorybirds.org/discussion-forum/

By contrast, the websites for proposed changes to rules for hunting bears (http://www.ncwildlife.org/Blog/wildlife-commntission-proposes-changes-in-bear-regulations-for-2018-2019) and deer regulations (http://www.ncwildlife.org/Blog/wildlife-commission-proposes-changes-in-deer-regulations-for-2018-2019), including maps and videos.

North Carolina hunters are already allowed to harvest deer, bear, upland game birds and other wild animals on Sunday.

Due to federal regulations protecting migratory birds, the state had to jump through several hurdles including comprehensive surveys of citizen attitudes towards lifting the ban.

Sunday hunting has been prohibited in the past for religious reasons, and 10 states from Connecticut to South Carolina ban or restrict Sunday hunting.

Proponents of the change claim that many waterfowl hunters who work the rest of the week are restricted to just Saturday, or even no days if they work Saturday, to enjoy the sport.

Those in favor also point to increased economic activity from weekend hunters compared to weekdays, boosting revenue in hunting-related businesses, as well as the fact that the vast majority of states allow Sunday hunting with no ill effects.

Waterfowl wintering at Lake Mattamuskeet attract hundreds of birdwatchers every year. Photo by USFWS

“Establishing Sunday hunting in North Carolina has been at the very top of our legislative priorities,” said John Devney, vice president of U.S. policy for Delta Waterfowl, a North Dakota-based duck hunting advocacy group. “Our members in the Tar Heel State strongly declared they wanted the prohibition lifted, and The Duck Hunters Organization is thrilled to have delivered for them.”

Chris Williams, a Garner, Wake County, resident and Delta Waterfowl senior regional director, was at the forefront of the effort, according to a press release from the group.

“Allowing duck hunting on Sundays will double the opportunities for working families, including their children,” Williams said. “North Carolina waterfowlers are especially indebted to Ches McDowell, policy chair of Delta’s state committee.”

McDowell is a Raleigh attorney as well as a member and lobbyist for Delta and several other hunting advocacy groups.

“Increasing hunter access is critical to reversing our declining numbers,” McDowell said. “I’m proud to be associated with Delta, because Delta fights for hunters. Who cares if you have ducks if you can’t hunt them?”

Opponents to Sunday hunting have included religious groups and leaders in the past, and many still cite religious reasons for maintaining such bans.

But others with secular arguments are also opposed to lifting the ban.

 

That includes members of the public who access forests and waterways on weekends to enjoy nature trails, bird watching, kayaking and other activities that might place them in close proximity to hunters.

These groups view Sunday as the one “safe” day they could enjoy their hobby without fear of becoming a victim of a hunting accident.

While they lost that battle relative to other animals and upland game birds, they feel waterways, impoundments and other public lands frequented by waterfowl were available on Sunday without worrying about conflicts with hunters.

Conservationists, hunting guides and hunting-ground owners believe that migratory bird populations are subject to more stress than other game, hence the strict federal protection of migratory birds.

They fear adding another weekend day of waterfowl hunting would cause significant damage to the local, state and even national waterfowl stocks, especially if “weekend warriors” from adjacent states have another weekend day to make a day trip to this part of the state’s significant waterfowl habitat.

Richard Hester, a guide from Hyde County, noted that if the state adopts the new rule, hunters would actually lose days because federal regulators would take away “compensatory days,” which allow for the hunting season to be spread farther across the calendar.

“In order to gain nine Sundays, when hunting is illegal between 9:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m, waterfowl hunters would lose seven weekdays and two Saturdays of all-day hunting,” Hester said in an email that has been circulated across northeastern North Carolina.  “A net loss of one hunting day, and, depending on what the final time-frame results are, there is the potential for holiday losses as well.”

“I have been in the waterfowl management and guiding business for over 30 years,” Johnson said. “On the Atlantic-flyway, hunting has been on the decline for several years due to excess hunting pressure.”

He added that the quality of a duck hunt on public waters in North Carolina is at an all-time low.

At their April 24 meeting, the Dare County Board of Commissioners passed a resolution opposing the rule change, stating that Sunday waterfowl hunting “is not comparable to Sunday hunting for other games species due to their migratory nature.”

The resolution also cited loss of compensatory days and total hunting days, and also expresses concern over the impact on the resource from the anticipated increase in hunting activity on the weekend.

Opposition to Sunday hunting in Currituck County, which is still considered one of the premiere hunting grounds on the Atlantic Flyway, has also been almost unanimous.

Lifelong hunters and guides in Currituck unsuccessfully asked for a similar resolution from their county commissioners, but all echoed Johnson and Hester statements of opposition.

Johnson said the balance of waterfowl hunting is already precarious in northeastern North Carolina and a tipping point is always precariously close.

“They are imprint animals,” Johnson said. “This means when they leave to find another spot to winter they will not come back.  In subsequent years they will winter in their new home. No more ducks, no more hunters, no more money and no more heritage.”