Friday, October 31, 2014

Public Comment - Sunday Hunting in Western Maryland

Conservationist Supports Sunday Hunting in Western Maryland as Proposed

My name is River Mud.  I have hunted in Maryland, including the Maryland counties under this proposal, for the greatest part of 20 years.  I also have hiked, kayaked, and walked my dog in this region, all during hunting season, without feeling unsafe due to hunters' presence.  I have worked in private lands conservation and habitat enhancement for almost 20 years, and I fully support the pending proposal for less restrictive Sunday hunting. 

More than 10 years after Maryland's first Sunday hunt, opponents still can't say exactly what's wrong with the massively successful policy.    There are not even anecdotal tales, let alone confirmed instances or law enforcement reports, of any known conflicts between hunters and non-hunters on public or private lands during a Sunday hunt.    Not even one.  Not in eleven years!  (Cue: unfounded, several year-old allegations of Sunday hunting conflicts....3....2....1.....) The opposition to Sunday hunting is about two things: unfounded fear, and a desire to control what others do in the wee hours in the dead of winter.  As a Maryland taxpayer and a conservationist, I find those two things quite odd, and certainly not  good bases for creating public policy.

The "Safety" Opposition:  Statistics are clear:  there are no Sunday-specific landowner conflicts - as landowners must give written permission to hunt in Maryland (and if the property is posted, riders and hikers must obtain permission as well).   There are no Sunday-specific safety issues, as hunting season (and preponderance of hunters in the field) occurs largely occurs during the times of year when most non-hunters are not outdoor in significant numbers.  44 states have Sunday hunting, and hunting accidents (largely only injuring the hunter perpetrating the accident) are no more prevalent there than they are in states without Sunday hunting. 

The "Exclusive Use of the Woods" Opposition:  As I sit in the goose blind or tree stand in January, windchills in the single digits, I keep an eye out for hikers, for dog walkers, for kayakers.  Those people, arguably more sane in their choice of free time activity, are settled in for a warm morning on the couch with friends and family.    They simply are not outdoors.  No one is riding a horse on state property on a Sunday when there is a foot of snow on the ground.  But bow hunters are there.  No one is kayaking the Potomac as the ice floes break and cartwheel downstream.  But duck hunters are there.  No one is walking their dog in blinding snow in a state forest, temperatures at dawn hovering at 0.  But grouse hunters are there.

The "Increased Poacher/Trespasser" Opposition.  If poachers exist on private lands, they should be arrested.  By Maryland law, anyone outside the immediate family of the landowner who is hunting private land without explicit written permission of the landowner is poaching - and a poacher.   The argument that Sunday hunting will lead to Sunday poaching is a spurious one - as poachers already operate on Sundays - the winter woods, fields, and waters free of the watchful eyes of legal hunters.  No data from the 44 states with Sunday hunting shows that game violations of any type have increased as a result of Sunday hunting.

The "Raining Bullets" Opposition.  It is illegal to shoot a squirrel with a pellet gun on Sunday.  However it is not illegal to detonate explosives, fire a banned, fully automatic machine gun all day, shoot hundreds of rifle, handgun, or shotgun rounds into the edge of the forest during target practice, or really any other type of shooting that isn't focused "at" a game species.  A successful deer hunt in Maryland ends with one shot fired.  A successful goose hunt? One or two shots fired.  A successful bow hunt? One arrow.  The likelihood of having a full, successful harvest?  Less than 25% on any given day.  So cue up those machine guns, but no Red Ryders allowed.  This is Sunday in Maryland.

The "Day of Rest for Wildlife" Opposition.   Several years ago, I took a beautiful photograph of a bald eagle killing a bufflehead duck on a Sunday.  It reminded me that wildlife doesn't get a day off until each animal dies.  Nearly a century ago, wildlife biologists (and I am one) put to rest the parochial notion that wildlife need or receive a "day of rest."  Disease, starvation, and predators all abound on Sundays.  Cars still hit deer on Sundays.  The "day of rest" concept is nonsensical and not based in fact. 

In conclusion, Sunday hunting is safe and it is equitable.  Sportsmen, the conservationists who contribute the most in volunteer time and in money to the state's natural resources should not be excluded from the woods, fields, and waters on Sundays because of unfounded fears that have been statistically disproven in every state that keeps wildlife law enforcement and hunting safety and fatality data.    If conflicts occur on private land, it means that someone is not where they are supposed to be - a reality for which criminal and civil penalties already exist, and must be enforced.  If conflicts ever do occur on public land, users should absolutely mediate a solution to ensure the incident isn't repeated.  

Why opponents of Sunday hunting keep insisting that these dire predictions are inevitable, and are only related to Sunday hunting, is perplexing.   The facts are apparent - Maryland's Sunday hunting ban was a clear violation of law.  Providing Sunday hunting access is a sensitive topic and must be handled thoughtfully, as it has been in Maryland over the last 11 years.   As a life-long conservationist and career wildlife habitat ecologist, I applaud Maryland DNR for this proposal on Sunday hunting and the long and thoughtful process by which it was brought about. 

2014 Bow Hunt II - The Art of Overthinking It

Having not seen a single deer at my first "genius" bowhunting spot in the swamp (beaver dam crossing), and having listened to an army of them behind and uphill of me during my last hunt,  I crafted up a hide behind a two-trunked poplar tree between two draws, near the top of the hill.

Once again, I hiked in, no lights, no moon.  Unlike my last hunt, I didn't hear a single deer before sunrise.  7am passed.  8am passed.  At almost 9am, I saw my first deer, stepping carefully through the swamp - a healthy 6-point buck.  He got on top of the beaver dam and slowly ambled his way across it, having to hurdle the two logs I hid behind during my last hunt.  I could have killed him with a rock!

Had I been there.

No, I was up at my genius new hideout, so as soon as I saw him crossing the dam, I stalked him down through the woods and finally got to about 40 yards.  Unfortunately, he stayed hidden on my side of the swamp, never providing an open shot, and angled away from me.   I took several deep breaths.   That excitement was worth getting up for, there's no doubt about it.  I was thinking about checking my phone when I heard a deer walking above and behind me - it was the 6 point - rooting around in the leaves about 5 yards downhill from the Genius New Hideout....where I was not sitting.   I was sitting, facing the opposite direction, about 25 yards downhill from the animal.  I slowly turned, and he saw me and flew out of there.  Hmph.

About three minutes later, I heard more hooves moving and thought, "He's coming back! He's coming back!"  Finally, after two years of walking around in these woods, I am noticing that the white oaks grow in nearly a straight/diagonal line across the slope, allowing the deer to check each one as they pass through.  Both the Swamp Log Hideout and the Genius New Hideout are within 5 yards of that trail.  If only I could sit still in one of those locations.  

The deer coming into the area looked to be the same size as the 6-point, but I only saw pieces of him.  He stepped behind a big poplar and I could tell he would keep walking.  I shouldered the crossbow and when his head cleared, he was still foraging in the leaves.  Breathe in, breathe out.  18 yards, maybe 20.  So easy.  As I was about to shoot, he raised his head, displaying two 6" 18 month old buck, not the 3 1/2 year old I'd just seen there.   I exhaled, which he heard, and he ran off.  I'm glad I didn't use a buck tag on such a small male.

And that was it - the wind picked up and the deer bedded down completely.  Soon, I plan to hang a stand in that area to allow me to draw a bow or shoulder a crossbow without being worried about what the deer see.  I'll probably also build a more formal ground blind to hunt in a cross wind.

All in all, another great morning.  I think success is coming soon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Back to the Woods - 2014 Bow Hunt I

2014 has been a lot of work.  I received a substantial raise right before the new year, and then was promoted in September 2014.   A lot has gone on, and my time outdoors has suffered pretty substantially.   So finally in early October, I got out to bow hunt an area swamp.

As I started down the hill, total darkness, no lights, a deer smelled me and gave out an alarm cry.  I heard them running all over.  I arrived at my pre-destined ground hunting spot a few minutes later, and waited.   The spot was at the end of a beaver dam that deer used to cross the swamp - hiding on the ground between two fallen trees.  There were always tons of tracks in the pre-season, so I figured it would be easy.   Having not hunted the spot in a year, I really had no idea.

Hello, poacher.  Found this while
scouting in July 2013.  Still here in
October 2014.  Guess the guy
hasn't been back. 
The deer were moving heavily on a trail above me, overlooking the swamp.  I heard dozens.  As the sun came up, I didn't see a single deer in the swamp itself, but was entertained by the wood ducks and beavers, all hard at work.  To my flank, three small does were eating white oak acorns.  I had no shot, and one of them was constantly looking right at me.  By 20 minutes after sunrise, the deer had stopped moving.  I never saw a buck, and never saw a large doe.

At one point before dawn, a deer was behind me, sending alarm calls to the deer in front of me.   The deer in front of me also sent out the call.  It was so dark that I couldn't see either of them - they must have smelled me.  I really hate hunting in a tree, but it might be required here.  

At 8:00 I put myself together and went to work.  I learned a lot, and I'll be back.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

On the Clean Water Act's Birthday, I Remember the King William Reservoir

One of my favorite places on earth - the Mattaponi River in eastern Virginia.
The US EPA gave someone permission to turn it into a 1,500 acre lake.
Photo:  Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

Habitat partners everywhere are celebrating the Clean Water Act's birthday publicly.  It's a great thing, and CWA is a great law.   Its application, though, has been a bit inconsistent over the years, a point which is not lost on the apparent majority of conservationists and a large minority of Democrats and liberals regarding the pending New Rule for Waters of the US.   Some of the most environmentally liberal local jurisdictions in the country, in fact, are publicly opposing the pending Rule.

Me?  I  wish it hadn't come to this.  I wish the Migratory Bird Rule was still intact - that the Missouri Coteau had federal protection from draining and from the farming of virgin prairie.  But that's all done now.  EPA failed to negotiate a settlement with a Chicago area sewer authority, and the federal agency was taken behind the woodshed when the case arrived at the US Supreme Court - the Court never even bothered to tackle constitutionality, finding significant statutory flaw in EPA's policy.

KW Reservoir site, from
Virginia Places
But I remember the King William Reservoir.  In the headwaters of the Mattaponi River, a sacred river on which I've paddled and fish most of my life, lie a great many things.  Last known populations of several endangered species.  Pre-Columbian sacred Native American burial grounds.  Current Mattaponi Tribal lands.   And the most lush and productive tidal freshwater beds I have seen in 40 years on this earth.

In those places, many years ago, the City of Newport News proposed to flood - up to 70 feet deep - over 600 acres, then 400 acres, of this special river.   It would have been the single largest loss of wetlands and streams ever permitted by the US EPA.   And the US Army Corps of Engineers happily granted permits for the project, without any objection from EPA (an agency that currently threatens to veto Corps permits for things as trivial as voluntary stream restoration projects).

Unfortunately for the EPA, a local group of stinky hippies called the "Friends of the Mattaponi" joined into a lawsuit with the Mattaponi tribe under the moniker of "Alliance to Save the Mattaponi", and in fact, a federal judge found that the King William Reservoir federal permits were  issued based on "arbitrary and capricious"standards - aka an "abuse of discretion." Specifically, the judge found that the EPA did not exert enough material interest or input in the project to warrant their lack of intervention.  And why would they was just the largest destruction of wetlands ever permitted by the Clean Water Act?! No biggie.  Part of the federal judge's logic was obviously that EPA had vetoed permits for other less destructive reservoir projects in the adjacent county to the south.  Ouch.

So, when the judge's decision came down, clearly the EPA realized the error of its ways, right? No! In fact, they appealed the judge's decision to the federal circuit court!!!!!  EPA felt so strongly that they should be able to allow the largest single destruction of wetlands in CWA history that they appealed it! When asked by reporters about EPA's support of the massively damaging project, their project manager Randy Pomponio said the nearly 1,600 acre bathtub was, "the direction we want these folks to go," when compared to a 1980s concept that was 50% larger.  You read that right, folks.  The largest permitted wetland destruction ever authorized under the Clean Water Act was "the direction (EPA) want(s) these folks to go."   

That's right - the same agency currently begging for a Presidential Rule on expanding its legal authority wanted to fight all the way to the Supreme Court - again (they're currently 2 of 9 for CWA cases, as I mentioned in my last post) - for their right to do whatever they want with whatever water they want.    Luckily and unceremoniously, AG Eric Holder saw to it that EPA's appeal was quietly withdrawn just a few weeks later.   

Until that last sentence, you were probably thinking that this case was in the 1970s, or early 1980s.  But that "Eric Holder" thing....yeah....this federal court decision happened in 2009.

The same federal agency who has never been able to balance the books on the loss of federal wetlands and streams, the same federal agency who is currently begging Congress and the public to approve a massive increase (they tell us conservationists) in federal waters jurisdiction...yeah...those same folks.

In fact, a recent blog article by EPA's Randy Pomponio (the same guy in charge of EPA's work on King William Reservoir just 5 years ago) discusses how badly the New Rule is needed:

The proposed rule ..... is designed to clear the confusion and provide a more definitive explanation.
This is critical because the health of our larger water bodies – our rivers, lakes, bays and coastal waters depends on the network of streams and wetlands where they begin.  

Well, I'd argue that the health of our larger water bodies is also dependent upon EPA not letting people flood them with 70 vertical feet of water, behind a huge dam. Ironically, EPA's New Rule for Waters of the US won't stop them from going along with another project of this type in another river (or, you  know, allowing coal companies to fill in mountain streams with toxic fill, or letting natural gas companies pump glycols into our groundwater...but I digress). The Clean Water Act didn't deter EPA, in fact, from allowing this behemoth of a project to attempt to destroy this beautiful, sacred place.  If it were not for local activists, this special place on earth would be gone by now, slowly flooding up to its new depth (deep enough for the world's largest cargo ships to float in it!).  But for the mean time, it appears as if the sacred Mattaponi is safe, still teeming with waterfowl, with menhaden and herring, with descendents of the people who arrived here three thousand years ago, with children fishing in boats.  I hope it remains so for my son and for his children.

Sacred tribal lands of the Mattaponi.  Photo: Sacred Land Film Project