Community Sports

Thursday, Oct 25 2012 06:37 PM

Steve Merlo: Refuge policies need to be changed to protect birds

By The Bakersfield Californian

In a recent conversation with an employee of the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, I was told that I never had anything good to say about the facility. He was mostly right because I do not like some of the policies the federally owned place has in place during duck season. But overall, I do think the web of national wildlife refuges are indeed a good thing. Providing habitat for all forms of wildlife, these select places are safe havens for resting, rearing and providing extremely valuable habitat for many species of animals.

My ax to grind comes from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service policies regarding closed areas during waterfowl hunting season. I am certain the policy in question has been integrated by some high-up government do-gooders to protect our precious waterfowl, but their logic, as far as I am concerned, is flawed. I feel closed areas hurt waterfowl, rather than help, and here's why.

While growing up in Buttonwillow, I was fortunate to spend a lot of time duck hunting. The sport carries an aura of fun and outdoor mystique for all who pursue the birds, and most of us are permanently captured by the overall experience. Back then, ducks were everywhere, literally, because of local farming practices, and we did not have to wait for the winter migration to shoot plenty of birds.

Duck clubs were also big, with as many as 80 or more Kern County clubs going full blast during the season, providing priceless winter habitat and water for the migrating birds. Rice and milo crops were basic back then, and I can remember seeing thousands upon thousands of sprig and mallards funneling into harvested fields. The ducks always seemed to come from the north, from a place called the "Reserve," where the birds could be hunted three days a week.

At that time, water was cheap, and the reserve properties covered many thousands of acres. The daily hunter quota, if I remember right, was somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 and getting in was rarely a problem. Run by the DFG, the place was a hunter's Mecca, and everyone who could not afford to be in a duck club at least had a place to shoot.

Nowadays, things have changed. Farming practices, electricity prices and the profound lack of water have hurt duck hunting. Fortunately, waterfowl hunters are a resilient breed, and there are still many clubs scattered around the valley, as well as hundreds of die-hard free-lancers. All of these hunters spend many millions of dollars in their pursuit of waterfowl by donating their time and money, literally, to the birds, through state and federal bird stamps, gun and ammo sales, memberships and donations.

Acting mostly alone, hunters across the nation have brought waterfowl back from the brink of extinction by donating and raising millions upon millions of dollars to purchase duck-raising habitat across the US and Canada. If it were not for them, ducks, and not just duck hunting, would have been gone a long time ago.

My feud stems from what I feel is too much and too many closed zone areas. While Kern consistently ranks high in the state's waterfowl kill numbers, it's not the refuge hunters I'm overly concerned about. Ducks ain't stupid, my friends, and it does not take long before the birds learn where and where not to go when the shooting starts. Right now, an incredible and unnecessary 55 percent of the refuge remains closed to waterfowl hunting at all times, plus an additional 1,000 acres of special program closure, giving the birds far too much water to raft up on during shoot days, and that isn't right.

What I would like to see is a radically reduced closed area so that hunting pressure from within the refuge would force the ducks to scatter out across the valley floor, giving the clubs and freelancers at least a fair shot at getting a few birds into their decoy spreads. After all, they paid for them, didn't they? Otherwise, with duckless skies, many club owners will simply not fill their expensive ponds, or freelancers will try something else. Then it will be the ducks that eventually suffer because the money donations will dry up and so will the birds, and we cannot let that happen.

Sporting clay shoot

The Kern County Cattlemen's Association will hold its 6th Annual sporting clay shoot on Nov 3 at 5 Dogs Shooting Range.

Check-in will be at 8:30 a.m., with shooting continuing until all teams are finished.

A barbecued steak lunch will be provided by the Twisselman family. Proceeds will benefit 4H and FFA fair activities and scholarships for the younger generations.

Contact Jay Hershey (661) 703-4959 for more information.

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