Gramm's clout made wildlife officials duck

April 02, 1995|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Sun Staff Correspondent

BLACKWATER -- The whisper of politics has long been heard over the shrill call of the wood ducks and Canada geese in the marshes of lower Dorchester County, a mere two-hour drive from the marble halls of the nation's capital.

In the pre-dawn chill of an autumn day, many a lawmaker and lobbyist have forged friendships and deals in the duck blinds of the Eastern Shore, an annex of sorts to the backrooms of Congress. And occasionally some of the Shore's most powerful weekend residents and guests have clashed with authorities whose strict enforcement of gaming laws has dampened the fun of their sport.

One of those part-time residents, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, egged on by hunting buddies, summoned a key federal wildlife official to his senatorial office to convey complaints about the management of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge near his Dorchester County home.

Not long after the intervention of Mr. Gramm, now a candidate for the 1996 GOP presidential nomination, the Blackwater manager, a vigorous enforcer of the waterfowl laws, was transferred over the objections of his supervisors to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.

That previously undisclosed involvement of Mr. Gramm, which dates back to the late 1980s, highlights the tensions that often exist between politically influential duck hunters and the men and women who try to keep the sport within bounds.

"There's always been tension over here," says one wildlife warden in the area, who asked that his name not be used. "We're in the playground of Congress. That's why I'm going to retire the day I'm eligible."

Indeed, the Eastern Shore, especially Dorchester County, one of the waterfowl capitals of the nation, has become Maryland's version of the Virginia hunt country -- a clubby, exclusive and somewhat mysterious retreat for the wealthy and well-connected.

Some of Washington's best- known lobbyists, among them Thomas Hale "Tommy" Boggs Jr. and J. D. Williams, own sprawling spreads in the county where members of Congress are frequent guests.

Over the years, politics has created a volatile, prickly atmosphere, often when VIPs have been caught in the law

enforcement net. Mr. Williams, Mr. Boggs, even a congressman, for instance, have all been convicted and fined for hunting


Skirmishes have also broken out when the Shore's influential guests and landowners have sought to quash regulations on their sport.

In 1985, Louisiana Democratic Rep. John Breaux, now a senator, pressed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to eliminate any limit on the number of birds a hunter can shoot on the Shore's privately run Regulated Shooting Areas, or RSAs, farms where mallards are raised solely to be released for sport. "Boy, we could have a good time then!" he said in a note to Mr. Williams.

In 1993, the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus -- which works to resist "aggression from antisportsmen," as its literature states -- along with RSA owners like Mr. Williams and Mr. Boggs, fought the Fish and Wildlife Service when it tried to tighten regulation of the RSAs.

And in the late 1980s -- in a series of events that reflects the tug of war that has been going on for years on the Eastern Shore -- Mr. Williams, Mr. Gramm and others were instrumental in causing the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the late Frank Dunkle, to make policy and personnel changes at the neighboring Blackwater wildlife refuge soon after refuge officers made some high-profile arrests.

"It was nobody's secret that it was related to our law enforcement," says former Blackwater manager Don Perkuchin, transferred to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge in 1988 and speaking publicly about his reassignment for the first time. "I stood my ground and it cost me something."

When Mr. Perkuchin arrived to manage the Blackwater refuge in 1984, with the waterfowl population in decline all over the continent, he told his staff he wanted to crack down on the widespread baiting -- the illegal practice of putting out food to attract birds within shooting range -- that was going on near the refuge.

His refuge officers, like those at all of the nearly 500 national wildlife refuges that dot the country, were authorized to patrol for baiting and other violations to a distance of one to two miles beyond the refuge boundaries.

In Mr. Perkuchin's first year, his efforts resulted in more than 30 waterfowl cases. And subsequently, he and his officers apprehended on baiting charges such high-profile figures as Mr. Williams; James Bugg, a Maryland businessman and Republican contributor; C. A. Porter Hopkins, a former GOP Maryland state legislator; and, in October 1987, Stan Parris, then a Republican congressman from Virginia.

Mr. Perkuchin was indeed unnerving local hunting enthusiasts, and not only because of what the sportsmen considered his overzealous pursuit of violators in the area. He also was an outspoken opponent of the widely proliferating RSAs.

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