Baiting Law Could Catch Waterfowlers Unaware
A strong secondary rice crop sprouted in Arkansas this year
Arkansas waterfowl hunters set afield for the Nov. 17 opener amidst heightened concerns about U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents ticketing hunters for gunning over manipulated ratoon rice, a secondary or volunteer crop that sprouts after the primary rice crop is harvested.
This year, hot, dry weather led to an earlier-than-normal rice harvest. Then, timely rains after the harvest spurred second-growth rice.
Under federal baiting laws, manipulating a standing crop, even a ratoon crop, is considered to be baiting. In Arkansas and elsewhere across the rice belt, rolling rice straw is a common practice to open up areas in the field for decoys. Rolling a ratoon crop, under current interpretations, might subject hunters to fines for violation of the baiting laws.
John Devney, vice president of U.S. policy for Delta Waterfowl, sent a Nov. 16 letter to USFWS law enforcement officials asking for a moratorium on citing hunters for manipulation of ratoon rice crops.
"All of us understand the rationale and basis for the baiting laws — they are an important tenant of waterfowl regulations," Devney said. "But we believe the issue with ratoon rice may catch a lot of hunters flat-footed. The conditions this year were unique, and the amount of ratoon rice out there on the landscape may mean hunters unknowingly rolled a ratoon crop. I think we need a time of assessment as how to handle these ratoon crops and some clarification and dialog so we can sure we aren't negatively impacting habitat or confusing hunters."
Despite the current controversy, ratoon rice might be a blessing to wintering waterfowl in Arkansas and throughout the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. With shorter growing seasons from new crop strains, earlier harvest and more efficient harvesting techniques, some people believe the available food resources for ducks and geese is running thin. Ratoon rice could increase available food resources to wintering ducks, especially if farmers have incentive to provide the second crop for wildlife, or if the ratoon yield is significant enough to warrant the expense to fertilize, flood and harvest it.
Researchers such as Rick Kaminski, professor of wildlife ecology and management at Mississippi State University, have been working to document the potential value of ratoon rice and exploring ways to grow it on a larger area of the waterfowl wintering range.
"With the current questions about federal baiting laws and ratoon rice, we may well be sending a signal that ratoon rice is more trouble than it is worth to farmers, duck club managers and duck hunters," said Frank Rohwer, president of Delta Waterfowl. "Obviously that isn't a productive outcome if food resources in the region are strained."