Wild vs. barnyard shooting debate to give Ward early test

Bill Burton

December 18, 1991|By Bill Burton

Some Eastern Shore waterfowlers have the best of both worlds as they toe a fuzzy tightrope between the legal and illegal. But now they're headed for a showdown in a tradition as old as the banishment of live decoys in 1935.

Those who stock farms with pen-reared mallards, then shoot wild waterfowl nearby are caught in the middle of a fresh legal look at that practice prompted by a U.S. Court of Appeals decision that appears to have cast aside the old interpretation that if they can fly, they're OK.

Also caught in the middle of a battle that promises to be as controversial if not more so than baiting was in the '50s and '60s is Mary Andrea Ward, the new U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service chief resident agent for Maryland and Delaware. She's bright, straightforward, has a reputation of going by the book, says she has no problems making a decision, and admits to having been called the Dragon Lady in previous assignments.

But now she's the boss of a band of federal agents who must make field judgments on the legality of the presence of barnyard mallards in proximity to the shooting of wild ducks and geese. It's a no-win situation, regulations remain vague, a budding Eastern Shore industry is at stake, and the eyes of waterfowlers across the country are on her.

So is the attention of those in Congress, other politicians and bureaucrats, and the politically influential who either shoot fowl themselves or whose constituents do. Welcome to Baltimore's FWS headquarters Mary Andrea Ward.

Also at stake is Maryland's mallard stocking program under which 20,000 mallards were released this year courtesy of receipts from state duck stamp sales.

Scroochers. Retired DNR Police officer Sonny Townsend of Chestertown gave them their name about 20 years ago. Some call them scrunchers, but whichever you prefer, they are barnyard ducks that don't fly much if at all. They prefer to scrooch low when approached by humans.

They are accustomed to man, were raised by man, stick around when man shoots at other fowl, and few can argue that they do not serve as a lure and attractant to their wild counterparts. Their presence reassures passing wild fowl that conditions are safe to join them on land or water -- whether shooters are nearby or not.

Until recently it was assumed they were legal if they could fly, and many were the times when wildlife agents put them to the test. When they didn't take to wing, those shooting over them were often ticketed for using live decoys.

All that changed in the case of United States of America vs. North Carolinians George Mebane, Leon Sears, Orville Woodhouse and Nathan Cartwright Jr., who hunted wild fowl over domestic mallards that could fly. "The evidence presented by the government clearly supported a finding that defendants were hunting migratory waterfowl in an impoundment where tame birds were located" is the crux of the landmark decision.

In most instances, barnyard ducks are not released today to lure wild birds; instead to be targets themselves. But now in the eyes of the law, they serve as live decoys, an interpretation that has shaken the cozy world of those who raise and release them, even the Department of Natural Resources, which does so on public lands that accommodate hunters.

State-released mallards are not known for their wild traits, which puts in jeopardy the general public who financed their purchase and now hunt them or wild fowl nearby. On the wing, who can distinguish the difference?

In Dorchester County there are 107 regulated shooting areas featuring barnyard mallards, their 112 full-time employees represent the county's fifth largest industry -- and they have released more than a million birds in the past eight years.

Some farmers raise mallards for aesthetics, then lease lands to goose shooting outfitters. It appears this, to, can be a big problem.

The flooding of farms and marshes by domestic birds not only can increase competition for food and habitat (many RSAs feed their ducks regularly), but open an avenue for the dreaded and highly contagious Dutch duck plague often triggered by the stress of overcrowding.

Also, there are fears the mix of wild and barnyard mallards will weaken the gene makeup of the truly wild birds through doing what comes naturally -- interbreeding.

And law enforcement can be a nightmare not only for wildlife officers, but unsuspecting shooters at large.

But, what about hunters who have poured literally millions into Ducks Unlimited and other organizations to improve duck hunting, with little shooting to show for it. Are they entitled to this diversion?

Townsend, who named the scroochers, said it's a choice. "You either shoot barnyard ducks and chickens, or shoot wild ducks and geese. The two don't mix."

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