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Proposed Changes to Clean Water Act Threaten the Future of Duck Hunting

BISMARCK, ND - Rob Olson has a message for sportsmen who’ve been grumbling about mediocre duck hunting the last few seasons: Either speak out in support of the Clean Water Act, or expect to see even fewer ducks in the future.

“The Clean Water Act has been protecting the little wetlands critical for duck production ever since it was approved by Congress in 1972,” says Olson, director of operations for Delta Waterfowl’s US office here. “But the Clean Water Act is being systematically dismantled. Every waterfowler knows what happens when we have a drought on the prairie breeding grounds. If we lose the wetlands protected by CWA, the breeding grounds could be thrown into a perpetual drought.”

The Clean Water Act began to unravel early in 2001 when the US Supreme Court ruled that the Army Corps of Engineers was wrong to deny a drainage permit for a proposed landfill in Illinois. The Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County (SWANCC) decision called into question whether Congress intended that isolated, non-navigable, intrastate wetlands fell under CWA jurisdiction based on their use by migrating waterfowl (the Migratory Bird Rule).

Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota and Rep. John Dingell of Michigan attempted to clarify Congress’ intent by introducing the Clean Water Authority Restoration Act, but the Congressional leadership has kept that bill from coming to a vote leaving the Corps of Engineers with no guidelines for issuing Section 404 drainage permits. The Bush administration set out to provide that guidance through a process known as Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR).

In November waterfowl conservationists were stunned when the Los Angeles Times published a leaked copy of the proposed rules showing that stripped all ephemeral wetlands had been stripped of protection under the Clean Water Act.

“Make no mistake,” says Olson, “temporary and seasonal wetlands are absolutely critical for duck production. Permanent wetlands are important at other times of year, but during the nesting season ephemeral wetlands are what ducks need.”

According to Ron Reynolds of the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bismarck office, “Over 90 percent of the breeding ducks in the prairie pothole region settle around wetlands that are classified as ‘isolated’ under the proposed rulemaking process, and 90 percent of the wetlands in the PPR qualify as isolated. That’s fact. How many of those wetlands will be at risk is speculation, but when you look at the farm program incentives to put land into production, there’s cause for concern.”

Reynolds says it’s possible the US portion of the prairie pothole region could lose up to 40 percent of its carrying capacity for breeding ducks if isolated wetlands aren’t protected by CWA.

Without CWA protection, Swampbuster becomes the last line of defense for small wetlands, but Swampbuster applies only to farmers who receive government subsidies. Olson and Reynolds agree that Swampbuster is a tenuous protection at best. “If Washington is willing to gut the Clean Water Act, what do you suppose the life expectancy of Swampbuster will be?” asks Olson.

In March of this year the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a memorandum detailing the importance of seasonal and temporary wetlands to waterfowl production.

“The Service believes that the overwhelming body of scientific information supports protection of ‘isolated’ waters because of their intrinsic physical and biological values and their importance to downstream aquatic ecosystems,” says the report.

The memorandum went on to say that small wetlands are “essential” for nesting ducks because they provide “a critical source of protein used by breeding birds during the egg-laying period.”

“This isn’t new information,” says Olson. “Al Hochbaum, Delta’s first scientific director, discovered the importance of season and temporary wetlands back in the 1940s.”

The Department of Interior insists removing small wetlands from government control “is consistent with continued protection of the nation’s wetlands,” adding that the job of wetland protection is best accomplished through voluntary, non-regulatory efforts.

The Fish and Wildlife Service disagreed, saying such efforts “will only scratch the surface” and “should not be used to entirely replace the stewardship responsibilities of private and governmental landowners and the public.”

A comprehensive paper prepared by Ducks Unlimited echoed the findings of the FWS report, and Dr. Alan Wentz of DU was quoted as saying losing the wetland protections afforded by CWA was, “This is a worst-case scenario” for ducks.

Recently 220 members of Congress sent a letter to President Bush urging him not to proceed with the Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. The National Wildlife Federation is running newspaper and radio advertisements asking sportsmen to contact their elected officials in an effort to add more names to that list.

“The Clean Water Act is critical not only to protect our fish and game resources, but to protect public health as well,” Olson says, “but duck hunters will be among the biggest losers if small wetlands are drained. That’s why it’s so hard to understand why more waterfowlers haven’t spoken out on this issue.

“We’re encouraging our members to take a few minutes to call, write or email their representatives in Congress and tell them to save the Clean Water Act. If they don’t, we might look back at the last few years of mediocre hunting as the ‘good old days’ of wildfowling.”

For more information, contact Rob Olson or John Devney at Delta Waterfowl, 888-987-3695.