With apologies to Steve Martin, if I had one wish that I could wish now that the holiday season is behind us and Virginia General Assembly season is blathering along, it would be for all the hunters and anglers and conservation groups of the United States—indeed—the whole world, to join hands and sing and work together in the spirit of harmony and peace.
And if I had two wishes that I could wish for, I’d wish for the holding hands and working together stuff and the second would be for a law protecting that broader community of outdoors enthusiasts from proposed laws crafted to further restrict their access to that great outdoors.
And if I had three wishes, well—never mind. But I do wish I understood how one subcommittee of the House of Delegates clearly saw the lack of merit in a quietly-introduced bill, perhaps designed to fly under the radar screen, while the full body of senators, save three, appeared oblivious. Only Senator Bryce Reeves, R-District 17, questioned the “public safety” card Senator Richard Stuart, R-District 28, is playing as he tries to push through SB-1725.
To refresh things, this bill would prohibit waterfowl blinds east of I-95 from being constructed in public waters less than 150 yards from shore unless the blind licensee had permission from the riparian landowner. Interestingly, Virginia Beach and the Counties of Fairfax, Prince William and Stafford are exempt under the proposal. It would dramatically limit access to tidal creeks and rivers. Northern Neck Delegate Margaret Ransone had an almost identical companion bill unanimously tabled in a House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources subcommittee.
Stuart chairs the counterpart committee in the Senate. His bill passed his committee. I watched the full Senate floor debate as the bill was read for the second time. When Reeves inquired about the number of documented incidents related to public safety, Stuart glibly retorted: “I’m not the complaint department for DGIF.”
Reeves asked if hunting blinds were typically oriented facing the shore or the water. Stuart’s lengthy response about waterfowl landing preferences ending with an assertion that many people build blinds where they can shoot in all directions, before he specifically called out people hunting from floating blinds.
Actually, I think one would find that most fixed blinds have a back and, often a partial roof, and are oriented toward the water. The exchange on the Senate floor had me wondering if the real goal isn’t an eventual rollback of the ability of people to hunt from floating blinds. Laws prohibiting floating blinds in the Northern neck were overturned more than a decade ago, an issue we covered at length in the Free Lance-Star. Legislation by then Delegate Albert Pollard, enabled hunters to stake out spots in rivers and creeks under tightly-governed parameters. Stuart wasn’t a member of the General Assembly then, but I recall he and some landowner hunting pals staunchly opposed floating blinds.
Reeves also brought up the lethality of steel waterfowl shot, accurately quoting ballistics data for the fastest, most potent BB loads and explaining maximum effective range is 70 yards. I would add that is maximum, lucky-shot-effective range and, by the way, that lethality is for ducks and geese, not humans. Stuart said that range was a reason why he established 150 years as a desired minimum from shore.
Since Stuart is couching this as legislation needed to solve a threat to public safety, I formally asked the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for documented instances where life, limb, property, pets, livestock have been harmed by duck hunters. Certainly, any legislator requesting a new law related to a dire threat to public safety would have done the same. Having complete facts prior to crafting a bill is important. I also asked VDGIF if they had proposed any regulatory or legal changes themselves, something that agency would responsibly do if there was a legitimate public safety issue.
Here’s what I learned. The department hasn’t proposed any changes and there were only two waterfowl hunting incidents during the last two fiscal years. A Dinwiddie incident was self-inflicted. The other was in Page County and occurred at a range of 30 yards with a shooter mistaking goose decoys for live geese.
These two incidents occurred west of I-95 and not even in the area where this proposed law is to be in effect!
Some landowners might not like hearing duck hunters shooting on winter mornings. Some landowners might want to ensure the only people who get to hunt ducks in the public water are themselves and their buddies. Either way, this doesn’t rise to the level of public safety issue. Stuart’s bill now goes back to the House of Delegates where it’ll likely be reviewed in committee next Monday. People who believe in public access to public water to hunt a public resource should work to ensure it meets the same fate as Ransone’s bill.
A Land and Forest Management for Quail and Game Management meeting is set for St. Stephens Church, on Feb. 21.
According to Mike Cherwek, one of the organizers, the format will be a walking field tour at 3 p.m. of an established restoration project by a commercial tree company, followed by a catered dinner at the St. Stephens Church public library at 5:30. An after-dinner presentation by VDGIF Quail Restoration Project Leader Marc Puckett wraps things up.
An information packet with land and forest strategies for game restoration, sources for wildlife seed planting materials to implement game habitat restoration, and a list of available consultants will be handed out.
Cherwek said more than 80 attendees have registered so far.
If interested, register with Dan Wilson at 434/531-0456 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The event, including meal, is $10 for landowners, $25 for others. Send checks payable to Rappahannock Chapter SAF to Mark Books, 9309 Laurel Oak Drive, Fredericksburg, Va. 22407.