WASHINGTON — With duck season in full swing, Arkansas’ two U.S. senators are challenging the federal wildlife agency’s new guidelines limiting duck hunting on rice fields.
U.S. Sens. John Boozman, R-Ark., and Mark Pryor, D-Ark., introduced legislation Wednesday that would overrule a recent interpretation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about what constitutes a "baited field."
The agency issued guidelines last month cautioning rice growers in Arkansas that many of their rolled fields would be off limits to waterfowl hunting this season. The summer drought led to an early rice harvest in Arkansas. Heavy fall rains caused a rare secondary "ratoon" crop to sprout.
If rice heads emerged in those fields, the USFW guidelines state that any manipulation – such as rolling – would make it a "baited field" where waterfowl hunting would be illegal.
"The normal farming practice is, they roll their crop after the harvest is done," Pryor said. "Baiting a field was never their intent."
Pryor took the issue to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar but was unable to reach an informal resolution. The legislation followed.
This late in the session it is unlikely that Congress will get to the bill, but Pryor said he hopes it will serve as a marker for action next year and dissuade the wildlife agency from prosecuting hunters this year who run afoul of the guideline.
John Devney, vice president of U.S. policy for Delta Waterfowl, welcomed the legislation.
"Baiting laws by their nature are very complicated. The proposed legislation may provide time for a sober review," Devney said. "In this case, there was a fairly exceptional set of circumstances that turned a bunch of folks into violators who certainly didn’t have that intent."
Delta Waterfowl, which has 46,000 members across North America, sent a letter last month to USFW law enforcement officials asking for a moratorium on citing hunters for manipulation of ratoon rice crops.
Pryor said hunting waterfowl is big business in Arkansas, contributing $100 million a year to the state’s economy. Many Arkansas rice growers lease land to duck hunters as a way to augment their income, he said.
Arkansas’ rice crop covers about 1.5 million acres. Mississippi, southern Missouri and northern Louisiana account for another 500 acres grown.