Mikulski under fire for stalling limits on duck hunting Animal rights activists characterize action as 'blatant political interference'

September 28, 1993|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- They won't be hunting on the Eastern Shore, but a group of House and Senate members will have ducks in their sights later this week when they sit down to complete work on the Department of Interior appropriations bill for the next fiscal year.

They must deal with a provision added to the Senate version of the bill two months ago by Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.

That amendment has sparked a mini-war of words between animal rights activists, who charge the Baltimore Democrat with "blatant political interference" in the federal regulatory process, and operators of private hunting areas on the Eastern Shore, where ducks raised in captivity are released and then shot.

The amendment would require the Fish and Wildlife Service to "terminate" its work on regulations untial a study of ducks raised in captivity is completed.

It was triggered by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announcement in June of plans to review "all aspects of the regulations" involving the shooting of ducks raised in captivity.

The agency said its review was prompted, among other things, by the potential for the birds to spread disease to the wild duck population as well as the problem of captive birds acting as live decoys for wild birds.

The announcement spread alarm among hunting advocates that new federal regulations would be forthcoming and spurred more than 80 members of the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus -- including Maryland Reps. Helen Delich Bentley, Benjamin L. Cardin, Wayne T. Gilchrest and Steny H. Hoyer -- to express "great concern over any regulation or policy that would jeopardize this extremely successful private initiative."

Dorchester County has one of the biggest concentrations in the country of these shooting areas -- some 40,000 acres, according to W. Ladd Johnson of Cambridge, who owns one of these shooting areas and operates a Washington company that develops hunting preserves across the country. He said they are not commercial enterprises but are run for the enjoyment of their owners and guests.

A number of prominent lobbyists reportedly own such shooting areas and use them for entertaining members of Congress.

Mr. Johnson said 1.4 million ducks have been released in Dorchester County in the last dozen years, including 45,000 this year.

Ms. Mikulski persuaded the Senate Appropriations Committee, of which she is a member, to include the provision.

The same provision is not in the House version of the bill, which means that Senate and House negotiators must work out a common position in a conference committee meeting later this week.

"The Fund for Animals considers this to be but the latest instance of blatant political interference in the process of administratively regulating the release of captive-reared mallards" at shooting areas, said Wayne Pacelle, the fund's national director, said of Ms. Mikulski's amendment.

Most conservationists believe these areas "offer shooting opportunities that are inhumane and unsporting, but also represent a serious threat to the health of wild duck populations," Mr. Pacelle said.

He acknowledges that the goal of the Fund for Animals is a ban on the release of captive mallards into the wild.

Mr. Pacelle claims that the captive birds represent a threat to the health of wild ducks because they are more susceptible to disease, having been raised under stress in close quarters.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said in June that "disease risks from captive-reared ducks have not been assessed, but are viewed as a potential problem.

Mr. Pacelle raises the specter of the influence of political contributions, saying that Ms. Mikulski got a $1,000 contribution from a political action committee, Duc Pac, that promotes hunting interests, and other contributions from the owners of regulated preserves.

He said the PAC also gave Mr. Hoyer $5,000 and Mrs. Bentley $400. Both of them are members of the House Appropriations Committee.

For Ms. Mikulski, it is a matter of getting information before taking action.

"It makes good sense to complete the ongoing Fish and Wildlife Service study on the duck release program before the agency issues any new regulations," she said in a statement.

"Along with providing a recreational purpose, it has created thousands of acres of new waterfowl habitats, including wild ducks," she said. "It also employees more than 115 full-time workers in Dorchester County."

The three-year study is being done by Frank C. Rohwer, an avian ecologist at Louisiana State University, who says it deals with the ecology of the birds -- including migratory habits and survival -- relying in part on a tiny radio strapped to the backs of ducks to track them.

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