January 16, 2024
It goes without saying that hunters around the country have endured a steady stream of rough news for years now, shouldering the bill for higher license costs and finding themselves facing limited opportunity.
And that includes waterfowlers, a camo-wearing group that simply wants to grab the shotgun, the retriever, load the boat with a bag or two of decoys and head down the road for a waterfowling adventure in some of the sport’s most fabled hotspots.
But in recent years, that’s been increasingly difficult thanks to what seems to be an ongoing skirmish between state natural resource agencies and duck and goose hunters who live elsewhere. A case in point is the mallard rich flooded timber and rice fields found in Arkansas, home to some of the most storied duck hunting action that can be found anywhere in North America.
Better get lucky
A few years ago, feathers got rankled as the Natural State’s leaders began to look at ways to mitigate the heavy hunting pressure that was falling onto some of the state’s hallowed Wildlife Management Areas; spots like Bayou Meto and beyond. Like many states, much of the best hunting in Arkansas is under lock and key on private ground and many hunters there have to rely on public ground to scratch their duck hunting itch each year.
Because the timber hunting and greenhead action can be so good there, the Arkansas Fish and Game Commission was tasked with the difficult work of managing its rich natural resources, making its constituents happy, and staying financially afloat among other things. None of that has ever been easy, and certainly not in these trying times.
Trying to do all of the above and more, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission modified the state’s regulations several years ago concerning nonresident waterfowl hunters on certain WMA’s popular for duck hunting in the state. In September 2017, AFGC confirmed the move, and the agency made sure to note that the change that year was in response to requests from resident hunters concerning these nearly two dozen WMAs, many of them offer- ing some of the best hunting in the Mississippi Flyway.
As a part of the above, the state’s annual Nonresident WMA Waterfowl Permit was discontinued that year. The change left only the five-day version of the permit available to non-residents. And as a final blow to out-of-state hunters, nonresidents could only purchase up to six of these permits per season, and each permit is only valid for a single WMA the hunter specifies at purchase.
Fast forward to 2023, and the Game Commission voted on a slate of non-resident hunting and fishing license fee increases recently to deal with revenue needs. This included the cost of the non-resident 5-Day WMA Waterfowl Hunting Permit referenced above.
Empty those pockets
Where do things stand now as fall arrives? In addition to a valid Arkansas hunting license, NRs must indeed purchase a permit to hunt waterfowl on certain WMAs during regular duck season. And the limit of six 5-day permits per waterfowl season per person stands.
Perhaps you’ve never wanted to chase greenheads dropping into flooded timber, an iconic form of waterfowling that every hunter should experience. But if you’ve ever applied for a non-resident western big game species, then you have some understanding. Most states restrict non-resident hunters and anglers in a variety of ways including higher costs, different season structures, or even prohibiting NRs from hunting at all where species or habitat are limited.
If that seems unfair, the courts have decreed it isn’t, thanks to a landmark big game hunting case a generation ago. In Baldwin v. Fish & Game Commission of Montana (decided in May 1978), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a case brought forward by Montana outfitter Lester Baldwin and four Minnesota non-resident hunters. That suit was brought against the Montana Fish & Game Commission in federal court because an elk tag in Montana cost at least seven times as much for non-residents who also were required to obtain a combination license to get a single elk, while residents did not. The outfitter and the non-resident hunt couldn’t do any of that.
But the high court ruled against the appellants, noting their argument didn’t apply in this instance because “The Privileges and Immunities Clause is limited to areas that affect the vitality of the United States as a single entity. Equal that “Fundamental rights cannot be considered to extend to recreational activities that have no impact on the political, social, or economic well-being of non-residents.” In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that “...a state may prefer its residents over the residents of other states, or condition the enjoyment of the non-resident upon such terms as it sees fit.” The court noted that in many similar cases decided earlier in history, courts have upheld the idea that the states have “complete ownership over wildlife within their boundaries.”
Federal birds, state-owned dollars
In waterfowling, NR hunters have been a bit more immune to this long simmering debate. Sure, waterfowl licenses cost more for NRs, because the courts have said that’s permissible. Despite the fact that it is going to dent your bank account more than the locals, for a NR duck and goose hunter, it’s still usually as simple as walking into any sporting goods store and getting in the game. Trends moving away from it being that simple appear ready to continue for NR waterfowl hunters, with higher costs to obtain licensing and growing restrictions like those in Arkansas for those from out-of-state.
In Manitoba, we reported earlier it will now be harder for Americans to hunt in that province, where vast numbers of ducks and geese breed, stage, and migrate. U.S. hunters now need to purchase a foreign migratory game bird license either through the drawing process or through a licensed outfitter.
Something similar has been happening for years in South Dakota, where the debate has simmered for decades in a state that limits NR duck and goose hunters.
Want to chase pheasants in the Mount Rushmore State this fall? Grab your shotgun, buy a license and go! But if you want to chase ducks and geese in SoDak, get in line and good luck. NR waterfowl licenses are limited and distributed by a lottery drawing that means forking over money, filling out an application and hoping for the best.
Something similar may soon happen in Kansas, easily one of the best spots to waterfowl hunt in the Central Flyway given its location in the bread basket of America and with top-notch hunting spots like the treasured Cheyenne Bottoms.
But like Dorothy’s whirlwind in the Wizard of Oz, changes are in the air. Earlier this year, the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks expressed growing concerns over the Sunflower State’s waterfowl populations and declining opportunities for its resident hunters to chase ducks and geese.
In an April presentation to the KDWP Commission, migratory game bird program manager Tom Bidrowski noted that there are growing concerns since increased hunting pressure can affect water- fowl distribution and behavior and reduce hunting access and decrease quality waterfowl hunting experi- ences in the state. This can lead to decreased hunter satisfaction, particularly among residents.
A committee was formed to examine the impacts of these pressures on Kansas duck and goose hunting resources, and the committee has begun to develop strategies to address the issue of increased non-resident hunting and guiding activities, crowded public lands, and impacts affecting the desire for quality waterfowl habitat and hunting experiences within the state by residents. Potential solutions for this debate in Kansas, in the minds of the KDWP committee, include limiting non-resident waterfowl hunting access on public lands to only Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays during Kansas waterfowl seasons, including early teal season. Also being considered is a non-resident Migratory Waterfowl Habitat Stamp at a higher cost than the resident stamp.
Public meetings were held this summer and the jury is still out on what may happen in Kansas, but overall, out-of-staters are seeing higher costs, increasing restrictions, and legal precedent suggests more of the same in the future. It’s possible someone may mount a new court challenge one day that could move the non-resident needle in another direction.
While wildlife has generally been considered something owned by a state on whose turf they reside, waterfowl are different in that they nest in one place, migrate and stage in numerous other places, and winter somewhere far away.
But the best guess here is that isn’t likely to happen, because this topic has steadily gone in a certain direction in the nation’s court system, much to the chagrin of out-of- state duck and goose hunters.
In the meantime, save your George Washingtons if you plan to travel out-of-state for your waterfowling adventures, do your pre-trip homework, and good luck. Because as a non-resident water- fowler, you’re probably going to need it. After all, in the minds of natural resource agencies, for the duck and goose hunter, there’s no place like home.