Prairie du Chien, Wis. — Six waterfowl guides who could be subject to proposed federal restrictions that will cost them more money to operate on the Mississippi River – while limiting their activity – attended an April 15 meeting loaded with questions, comments, and requests for changes.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has drafted guidelines that could change how commercial waterfowl outfitters operate on the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.
The guides presented a formal comment that night, which was recorded so the USFWS could review the comments prior to setting final guidelines.
Anyone who did not attend may file comments by May 15.
Tim Yaeger, deputy refuge manager, said the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge stretches 261 river miles.
Four “districts” manage the pools, with pools 4 to 6 in the Winona (Minn.) District, pools 7 and 8 in the La Crosse District, pools 9 to 11 in the McGregor (Iowa) District, and pools 12 and 13 in the Savanna (Ill.) District.
The refuge was created in 1924 and its primary mission, as set by Congress, is to benefit wildlife and wildlife conservation. The entire refuge is closed to hunting until portions are opened.
Federal refuges are guided by a comprehensive plan, with the plan for this refuge completed in 2006. That plan identified a need to develop a process for issuing permits for guided hunting, fishing, and wildlife observation.
Although sportsmen may hunt and fish on refuge waters, commercial operations are viewed differently, and are required to acquire permits. Currently, annual permits are issued to all guides, and their movements are not restricted.
“Guiding is a compatible use and it provides opportunities for people to hunt,” Yaeger said.
The Upper Mississippi River is big and can present dangerous situations, he said. Hunters without special equipment or knowledge of wing dams, swift current, and open pools, that can be deadly with high wind and waves, still can hunt by hiring guides.
However, in order to meet plan goals and to address complaints from some hunters about guides being too competitive, the refuge has proposed guidelines that include an application fee of $500 for a permit; proof of liability insurance; maintaining daily records on clients and harvested waterfowl species and sex; guides and assistants are not allowed to shoot waterfowl; and boats and vehicles must be clearly marked with an adhesive decal provided by the refuge.
In addition, the USFWS would set 13 specific guide-use areas and cap the number of annual permits available for guides. These permits would be issued following a random drawing.
Another proposal: That 3 percent of a guide’s gross revenue be used to pay for a special use permit.
Yaeger said the refuge manual requires the recovery of costs based on the fair market value of services. The rates for a guided hunt in this area range from $180 to $250 per day per gun.
The $500 that a guide would pay for the permit application would be applied to the 3 percent special use permit fee.
Currently, guides may use assistants; there is no limit to the number of assistant guides. The new guidelines call for a limit of one assistant, and that person must be in the same boat.
Also, guides and assistants now may carry a shotgun and shoot ducks, but the new guidelines would not allow them to shoot or harvest waterfowl, including cripples, while guiding.
The guides took exception to that clause and said that it often was necessary to help kill a crippled duck that might otherwise get away.
Sabrina Chandler, refuge manager, said she is willing to consider those concerns.
Some guides said these changes might put them out of business, with the cost of equipment and the limited number of people they can take out. The guides also wondered why the number of guides allowed in an area would be limited.
Chandler said that change was added because of competition between guides and other hunters. The number of guides has increased, and so have the complaints and conflicts.
Richard King, of the McGregor District, said he’s received complaints about guides from hunters.
Tony Toye, a guide from Boscobel, said guides need the ability to move because weather patterns change flight patterns and bird movement.
Toye uses two parttime guides and though they have three boats, when they are out they take up one hunting spot.
Toye said these guidelines, which were adapted from similar guiding rules at White River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas, are aimed at putting guides out of business.
He suggested that to minimize alleged complaints, perhaps guides should be prohibited from guiding on opening day and Saturdays.
As for questions about why guides needed to be identified, Chandler said that in providing them with a permit, the USFWS was endorsing them, and this helped ensure ethical activities.
One guide said he has no problem with having a USFWS decal on his boat, but he did not want to be required to have it on his truck for fear of vandalism.
Todd Lensing, owner of Flyway Fowling Guide Service in Ferryville, has guided and had special use permits for the past 12 seasons, with no violations.
“I am more than willing to adhere to the 21 conditions, which is basically how I have conducted my business since day one,” Lensing said.
However, he did have issues with the lottery drawing – and not knowing until the draw whether he’d be able to work in the fall.
Lensing also said that limitations to where he could hunt in Pool 9, which is 31 miles long, would hamper his being able to follow the birds and work with river and weather conditions.
Referring to the impact of 3 percent of gross income, Lensing said, “This huge increase seems very unfair considering it’s only being applied to waterfowl guides. I believe all the other businesses making an income from activities on the river, including fishing guides, commercial fishing and trapping, fishing barges, tour boats, should all be subject to the same rules as waterfowl guides.”
Lensing is almost fully booked for this fall. Toye is fully booked for 2015.
Guides and assistant guides who attended the meeting were Lensing, Toye, Matt Ellis, Matt Raley, Joe VandeHey, and Michelle Goss.
Hunters who would like to comment have until May 15. They may send comments to: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Upper Mississippi Refuge, Attn: Waterfowl Guide Prospectus, 51 E. 4th Street, Room 101, Winona, MN 55987.
Comments may be e-mailed to Timothy_Yaeger@fws.gov
Some hunters are concerned about commercial use of a public resource, and some have concerns about some guides using the Mississippi River.
Jeff Gnagi, of Green Bay, has hunted ducks for 31 years and is increasingly concerned about the crowding on the Mississippi.
Gnagi said he has hunted Pool 8 for 22 years and says he may do more hunting in the Green Bay area because the Mississippi islands are so crowded.
About four years ago while hunting Pool 8 in early November, he and his party got out early and set up. A large boat came out from the landing toward them.
“We shined our flashlights to alert them that we were in that spot where some willows had been stuck in the shoreline,” he said, “but they kept coming.”
A guide asked if they were going to hunt there. Gnagi and his partners said yes, but the guide said that it was his spot and asked them to move.
The guide had three clients in his boat and eventually left the area.
Gnagi has talked to other hunters and learned they also had concerns about this particular guide.
He said he’s also heard from other people about guides sending someone out to hold a spot early in the morning.
“When you are making income off of the public land, I don’t like that,” Gnagi said.
Dane Morey, of Arena, also hunts Pool 8 and said he thinks the proposed guidelines will help make guides more accountable.
“It’s nice that people without equipment can go out with guides and enjoy duck hunting, but it is a public resource and it should not be commercialized,” Morey said.
He thinks the proposals set standards and provide accountability, while allowing guiding to continue.
He hunts Pool 8 and was on an island one morning at about 3 a.m. The same guide came out from the landing about 4 a.m.
“The guide came right at us, though we were shining out flashlights at him, and then shined a large light in our eyes and asked if we’d be hunting this island,” Morey said.
He said that this was his spot.
“We’ve seen the boat before and are positive it was the guide’s boat,” he said.
Morey has no problem with limiting the number of guides per pool, believing that leaves more places for other hunters.