Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Upper Miss refuge duck guides could see new rules

Winona, Minn. — A new set of rules that likely will be in place this fall for waterfowl-hunting guides who use the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge probably will mean increased costs. But for at least one guide, it’s the uncertainty that’s in the current draft of the plan that has him uneasy.

Todd Lensing, the proprietor of Flyway Fowling Guide Service, is one of a handful of people who call themselves duck and goose guides who use the Upper Miss refuge. The current permit fee is $100 annually, but in the draft plan he received via mail recently, that cost could go up considerably.

But Lensing, who’s been in the game since 2003, said his business is well-established – so much so that he believes he can weather that storm. But another part of the plan, to require guides to annually apply for a permit, without knowing for sure if they’ll get one, gives him pause.

“I have enough built-in clientele that I’m comfortable with (the cost increase),” he said.

According to Lensing, on top of the $100 permit fee will come a charge of 3 percent shaved off gross season revenue. In other words, for every $1,000 earned, he’ll toss another $30 into the government pot.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials say the charges are fair, and will cover agency costs.

“It’s a commercial operator, so we need to make sure our costs for administering the program are recovered,” said Tim Yager, deputy refuge manager based in Winona, Minn.

Yager said the proposed rules are more strict than those currently in place, but are in the best interest of all refuge waterfowlers, individuals and guides alike.

In order that “average duck hunters” aren’t crowded out of certain, more remote locations, there are places where guides may or may not set up shop early on an October morning. There also are 21 permits that will be offered, and 13 “guide use” areas, according to Yager.

“That’s more restrictive than how we currently regulate,” he said.

Lensing said he’s a “one-man operation.” However, other guides have assistants who also are required to have guiding permits. 

In 2006, when a major plan for the Upper Miss refuge was completed – the Comprehensive Conservation Plan – there were only a couple of waterfowling guides in operation, according to Yager. Now, he said, there’s upwards of half a dozen in Pool 9 (where Lensing conducts business), and others in pools 6 and 8. He said Pool 9, along the Wisconsin/Iowa border, is known for its “large water and tremendous habitat.”

As part of the USFWS planning process for the refuge’s conservation plan, a “compatability determination” needed to be made regarding waterfowl guiding. As it “probably provides an opportunity for hunters that might not otherwise exist,” Yager said guiding passed that test. Thus, he said, “It’s a compatible use.”

For Lensing, guiding waterfowlers on the Upper Miss refuge has become a large part of his income package, coupled with his operation of the Grandview Motel in Ferryville. Further, he said, his customers, many of whom return to him year after year, want to plan their hunts well ahead of the season. And, he has a boat payment for which he’s responsible, a craft used for guiding.

It’s for those reasons, he said, that he’ll attend one of four public meetings to be held regarding the USFWS’s waterfowl guiding proposal, to seek assurances his business can be something more than a year-to-year endeavor.

“It will be interesting to see how this shakes out,” he said.

Matt Ellis is another Upper Miss waterfowling guide who combines that passion with the ownership of a hotel, his the Safe Landing Hotel in Stoddard, south of La Crosse.

Ellis has guided for less than 10 years, but said the additional cost could force him from the duck-hunting backwaters.

“I don’t have assistants, and I don’t do it to make a living,” Ellis said. “But with this (the increase in permits and costs), I might tell them to just forget it.”

Both guides acknowledge regulations in general have become more stringent. Lensing said things like captain’s license requirements, insurance rules, and more, are a good thing. He said what once was a one-page cover letter (application) with $100 to take care of a season of guiding has become multiple pages.

“But I have no issue with that,” he said. “We (guides) have to conduct ourselves at a higher level, because we’re looked upon at a higher standard.”

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