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Federal agency ducks answers for failed waterfowl program
The Plain Dealer

I was splashing through the marsh when a pair of wary mallards took wing from among the cattails a few dozen yards away.

They didn't have to worry. Ohio's duck hunting season is still almost two weeks away.

Buckeye hunters have been handed 60 days of duck hunting by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. You have to wonder why the season is so short in a state where waterfowl hunting depends on migrating birds making a short visit to marshes that are but a shadow of what they were a century ago.

Hunters in Louisiana, Mississippi or Arkansas, where the same ducks will spend the winter feeding in sprawling rice fields and marshes, have the same 60 days of hunting. A major difference is the amazing opportunity for success in those southern states. Louisiana waterfowl hunters killed more than 2 million ducks last year, at least a dozen times the annual Ohio duck harvest of about 150,000 birds.

The USFWS calls it waterfowl management and under federal law makes all the rules. It is not fair, but the USFWS seldom listens to state wildlife agencies or waterfowl hunters. The USFWS is going to do what it thinks is best.

It doesn't matter to federal officials that Ohio sportsmen will certainly lose many days of waterfowl hunting to bad weather, a rare happening in the southern states. Or that many species of ducks, including the glorious canvasback, have yet to arrive before Ohio's seasons have ended.

The USFWS demands Ohio hunters complete a Harvest Information Program (HIP) survey when buying a hunting license to give it the information needed to set seasons and bag limits. It is a flawed program. Hurried hunters often don't do it and clerks may not ask them if they want HIP certification. The Ohio Division of Wildlife seldom makes it an issue and rarely cites a waterfowl hunter for not having the HIP certification on his license.

As a result, the USFWS numbers are hard to believe.

According to the USFWS, the small army of Ohio waterfowl hunters jumped an amazing 29 percent last year, soaring from 19,700 to 25,400 hunters. Oddly, at the same time the sales of Ohio Wetland Habitat Stamps waterfowl hunters must purchase dropped by more than 300.

The hunting weather wasn't at its best in 2002, especially during the latter part of the northern Ohio waterfowl season. The USFWS reports that Buckeye hunters killed 193,300 ducks last year, a whopping 33 percent increase.

The figures just don't add up.

The USFWS slashed the bluebill limit from six to three for Ohio, the most important duck for Lake Erie layout hunters. Only 3,622 bluebill, or scaup, were killed by hunters last year according to the inflated figures of the USFWS, a negligible amount.

The USFWS demands a special zone for Lake Erie goose hunters and a shortened season to protect beleaguered geese from Southern James Bay in Canada, a population in peril in part because native hunters take geese and their eggs in spring. Many state experts believe the restricted Lake Erie Zone isn't necessary, that the vast majority of geese killed by Ohio hunters are the homegrown variety.

The USFWS has dawdled as the Great Lakes cormorant population has exploded. The birds have wreaked havoc in Ohio since nests reappeared in 1990. The homely black ducks are devastating the Lake Erie islands, killing trees and vegetation with their plentiful waste after devouring massive amounts of Lake Erie game fish. Now, the birds are moving to the Ohio shoreline, nesting from East Harbor to LaDue Reservoir.

The USFWS finally developed a management plan this year. It turned the cormorant problem over to state wildlife agencies and mandated that they must use USFWS guidelines. Hunters who kill a cormorant will still face hefty fines.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife is now trying to decide how it can stop the cormorant explosion. No management plan will be available for at least a year. But under federal guidelines, easy answers will be hard to find.

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