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So why bother to expand the shorebird hunting program?


Over the past 20 years, I have become a more-or-less avid snipe hunter. Today (Sunday, Feb. 1) is the last day of the season, and the last of the general bird seasons to close this year. The last. And almost no one hunts them any longer.

Snipe are also the last remnant of shorebird hunting in this country. Once upon a time, shorebirds of all types and stripes were hunted by sportsmen and market hunters because people of that long ago era actually preferred the shorebirds on the plate. They liked them better than ducks or geese, better than barnyard chickens, better than beef. Curlews, dowichers, avocets, wimbrels, and all the rest were delicacies. Some were market-hunted to near extinction and, when combined with loss of habitat, many have never recovered. But there are a bunch of them that are at good population levels thanks to waterfowl conservation efforts that have also benefitted shorebirds.

A few shorebirds are still legal to hunt in Mexico, and a friend I introduced to snipe more than a decade ago now is an avid long-billed curlew hunter on the marshes around San Quintin, where he has hunted brandt for years. He’s even made curlew decoys because – once hunted – the curlew are far more difficult to bag than the coastal geese. They won’t come to the same decoy spot where they have been shot before, so he has to move to new locations daily and try to set up where the birds were feeding unmolested the day before. They are even more critical about seeing anything hunter-related than waterfowl, mandating perfect camouflage and concealment. But most of all, they have become his favorite gamebird to eat. He’s hooked.

As populations have recovered, we now hunt swans and sandhill cranes again. (I have a friend who lives in Nevada who will take anyone who gets a swan permit hunting. He has just one provision: he gets half the swan for his dinner table.) But we haven’t added any shorebirds back on the hunted list, and funding to do shorebird-specific habitat work is lacking.

I have suggested to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service they should set up a “webless” season framework for several shorebirds again and work with sporting groups to get a federal shorebird “stamp” to fund habitat acquisition, just like has been done with the federal duck stamp. But there are blank stares and long silences at the end of phone lines when I made that suggestion. First, it would require a lot of effort on their part and most of them are already stretched pretty thin. Second, the political can of worms it would open is monumental.

A long-time U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service friend was frank about what he thought: There was no going back. There are a handful of shorebird hunters left, and the number of hunters as a percent of the population was declining. Oh, sporting groups like to tout how hunter numbers are growing nationwide, but we are a shrinking percent when related to the size of our population. Why bother? He’d given up, and he’s pretty typical.

In that world view, there was no place left for sound science and expansion of hunting opportunity. Using that logic, only a handful of hunters get bighorn sheep permits each, so why bother? There aren’t enough crane and swan permits to even cover the cost of giving out those permits, why bother?

Instead watching the Super Bowl, I’m out hunting snipe today. Why bother, indeed.

Upland bird season

ends with a big yawn

In an empty 20-gauge shell, upland birds seasons were terrible this year. For the past four years, production of young quail and chukar has been below “normal” or downright non-existent. Throughout the southern half of the state bird numbers are about as low as they get. I bang around a lot in our deserts before, during, and after our bird seasons, and I never saw a covey of quail that had more than a dozen birds this past year. A lot of places had coveys – if you can call them that – of four to six birds.

Even in the area where was some production this past spring (most notably the upper elevations of the Mojave Preserve and along the lower Colorado River), it was still rare to see more than 20 birds in a covey. I know a lot of diligent chukar hunters who didn’t see a single bird this season.

I’ve given up looking into the crystal ball and forecasting how the coming spring’s hatch will be. We had big years in 2004 and 2005 and again in 2010, and if there’s a cycle to this sort of thing, we’re due. I used to believe that if we got a couple of good rains in desert in January, February, and even early March, then bird numbers would blossom. But I’ve seen what looked like good hatch years fizzle for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. I’ve also seen pretty decent hatches when I thought we were too dry.

The biologists say we need wet soil in the winter to set the base and then late winter-early spring rains to set things in motion. The wet soil produces a lot of green-up and feed that stimulates the hens’ hormones. The same wet soils and green-up also grow a lot of bugs that are necessary for chicks when they come out of the nest in late spring and into early summer. That high protein diet is essential for their growth and health. The wet soils also grow good cover to protect the broods and their parents from predators, and then the seeds produced feed them well the rest of the summer and fall.

Of course, they have to have permanent water sources where they can drink every day when it’s 114 degrees or they will simply die. Thankfully, we have great volunteer groups of hunters all over the region tending to the critter’s water needs.

Right now, there are places where the desert is already lush thanks to a season of sporadic summer, fall, and winter rains. A couple of good soaks in February and….

Stupid Meter: Congressman Honda

wants to ban sales of body armor

This has the stupid meter pegged: Congressman Mike Honda, a Democrat from California’s 17th Congressional District in Santa Clara County, has introduced legislation in Washington that would ban the public from owning enhanced body armor. Honda and his staff say the law would prevent violent criminals and mass murders from protecting themselves when committing crimes.

Makes you wonder how a mind like Honda’s works. Think this through with me. There’s a law against murder. That isn’t stopping a lunatic. It’s against the law to have an automatic firearm. That isn’t stopping the lunatic. You can’t discharge a gun in any city I know about. That law is ignored. But a law against buying body armor is going to keep the same lunatic from finding and buying body armor to use in his other bad deeds. I’m baffled. This is like banning all booze to keep drunk drivers off the streets.

Adam Bates, a criminal justice policy analyst with the Cato Institute, was quoted in Slate as saying, “This idea that people have to be preemptively unprotected in case the government needs to shoot them at some point—I think that’s basically the implication of the bill.”

Spot on.

This bill comes from the same minds that want to ban firearms from legal gun owners under the guise of stopping illegal gun activity. And it’s a guise. They fear legal gun owners. But even people who believe a gun ban will help reduce violence don’t use the same logic with other implements of crime. A person gets stabbed, they don’t clamor to ban knives. A person is run over purposely by a car, they don’t clamor to ban cars. Someone stands on a corner yelling racist remarks, they don’t suggest we eliminate free speech. In each case, they blame the person -- unless, of course, a gun is involved in the mix. They are simply afraid of guns and gun owners.

The body armor ban is directly related to guns. Legislators like Honda believe only gun owners would buy body armor, and they believe all gun owners are fundamentally dangerous, poised to go on a shooting spree any second. The Honda’s of the world need counseling, long sessions on the couch to address their unfounded fears.


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