USFWS pondering tribal night netting, snaring of ducks

Bands also seek longer swan season and use of electronic calls

By Victor Skinner

Contributing Writer

Bloomington, Minn. — The Mississippi Flyway Council is objecting to a plan to further liberalize tribal waterfowl hunting regulations on public lands in three states – Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.

The council, comprised of wildlife managers in 14 states and three Canadian provinces, works with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to craft regulations for migratory birds. Tribal leaders follow a separate system with the USFWS in accordance with decrees and other legal arrangements with the federal government.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) is requesting new 2017-18 migratory bird regulations for ceded territories in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan that include the ability to catch waterfowl with nets and snares at night. The proposal also calls for an experimental season for 50 hunters to use electronic calls and the extension of a tribal swan hunting season.

GLIFWC biologist Peter David said that netting birds at night is “an old traditional practice that hasn’t been allowed in a long time” and the agency is looking to restore it. He said the proposal for the limited use of electronic calls and expansion of the swan season are aimed at drawing more tribal hunters to the woods.

“The tribes are certainly interested in increasing the harvest to put more food on the table in the tribal community,” he said.

Russ Mason, Michigan DNR wildlife chief and the state’s representative for the flyway council, said the council is expected to issue a formal letter to the USFWS objecting to the proposed changes for several reasons.

The council has generally supported tribal efforts to increase bag limits and traditional species available to its members, he said, but the most recent proposal raises new safety and ethical concerns.

Netting at night raises questions about identifying species, a requirement for non-tribal hunters, while electronic calls could also create an array of different conflicts with non-tribal hunters, who cannot use the devices, Mason said.

“It’s kind of hypocritical to hold non-tribal hunters to all these standards and tribal hunters to no standards,” Mason said, adding that tribal hunters also enjoy much larger bag limits, longer seasons, longer shooting hours and the ability to hunt swans, cranes, doves, and other species state managers protect.

“We all oppose it, but the (USFWS) is going to do what they please,” he said. “All rules are suspended when it comes to dealing with the tribes.”

Minnesota DNR Wildlife Chief Paul Telander, Minnesota’s flyway rep, confirmed the council is crafting a letter outlining concerns with the GLIFWC proposal members hope to send to the USFWS in late March.

“There are concerns about the ability to identify species at night and taking non-target species,” he said. “Also, the safety of hunting at night.”

Telander said electronic calls “for hunting in general, we don’t see that as a reasonable regulation.”

State wildlife managers are also nervous about “how it might impact non-tribal hunters in the area,” he said.

“We’ve supported some of the differences (between tribal and non-tribal hunters) in the past because it’s a pretty small harvest,” Telander said, noting a total tribal take is typically less than 3,000 birds a year. “But there are different questions that come into play” with the current proposal.

The tribal regulations would cover off-reservation property in territories ceded in the treaties of 1836, 1837, and 1842, which include public lands across most of Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula and all of the Upper Peninsula, the northern half of Wisconsin, and large areas of eastern Minnesota.

GLIFWC is aware of some concerns about the proposed regulations, David said, but tribal officials say they don’t believe they will have a biological impact because of the relatively small number of tribal hunters.

David said the average number of hunters across all three states over the last decade has been roughly 100 a year, and they’ve harvested about 1,100 ducks and 250 geese per year, though tribal data shows those figures have trended higher in recent years.

The 2015 tribal harvest estimate was 2,727 ducks and 639 geese, estimates David believes are exaggerated because of new tribal polling techniques.

“Our crane harvest has ranged from two to three per year,” David said. “We haven’t had a swan registered yet.”

David said tribal hunters would net birds at night alive, which would allow them to select only target species.

“Species identification with nets seems hard to understand,” he said. “With a net you have the ability to identify and release it.”

David acknowledged that electronic calls could create issues with non-tribal hunters, but argued that the limited scope of the experimental season – a proposed limit of 50 hunters – would make encounters unlikely.

“So it’s a concern if a non-tribal hunter is nearby and benefits from that they could be in violation of the law,” he said. “We’d hope, like the spy blinds in the teal hunts (introduced in Michigan and Wisconsin in recent years to monitor incidental take of non-target species), they’d address this in the same way.

“We’d hope (law enforcement) would use some discretion and record information (rather than issue tickets) similar to the early teal season,” he said.

Tom Cooper, USFWS chief for the Division of Migratory Birds, said officials are reviewing the GLIFWC proposal and are aware of the concerns.

“There’s a proposal at this point that was submitted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and there’s a process through the Federal Register to comment on it,” he said, noting that the proposal was not yet posted but will be soon. “The Mississippi Flyway Council can comment on it, state agencies can comment on it, and the public, individuals, can comment.”

Cooper said the USFWS will consider the feedback and come to a conclusion about the GLIFWC proposal this fall, but he refused to discuss the process federal officials use to make a determination.

“It basically relates to the treaties and … they don’t go through the flyway system like states do,” he said.

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