Michael Pearce

Michael Pearce: Wildlife and Parks Commission needs to represent all hunters

Laughter erupted when Commissioner Don Budd boomed “we can do whatever we want” in response to a protocol question from Commissioner Roger Marshall at the Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Tourism Commission meeting Aug. 1 in Yates Center.

It won’t be so funny if those words become the motto for the current commission, especially when setting waterfowl seasons.

Budd, with the help of supporting commissioners, left biologists and many unhappy southeast Kansas hunters in his dust when he made 95 percent of that area’s duck season the latest days allowed.

Marshall insured it will be legal to shoot Canada geese during his sandhill crane hunts with buddies, though it could cost more than 10,000 other hunters a February week when many more Canadas are usually around. Marshall, of Great Bend, needed just some questionable excuses to back his cause and the debate-free vote of the other six commissioners to trump agency evidence that his season wasn’t the best for the masses.

After the vote, I asked Marshall if his hunt was a factor in his date request, and he admitted it was. He got the duck season for his area changed unanimously, too.

Let’s hope these aren’t part of an “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” commission trend.

Minority rules

All seven commissioners are avid outdoorsmen. Most hit the Kansas outdoors hard, hunt and fish in other states and own or lease lands where they spend high amounts of sweat and money for wildlife. To me they’re a relief compared to commissions when as many as three of seven members had no hunting or fishing experience.

Such passions have always come with desires, and commissioners have long probably voted toward what improves their hunting and/or fishing. It’s always been the job of other commissioners to make sure such desires aren’t detrimental to Kansas wildlife and sportsmen. They’re to do the same with agency proposals, too. Nobody wants them to back the department all of the time.

But the ease with which Marshall got his Canada goose season, which best serves a minority, makes it look like the other commissioners cared more about having Marshall’s back than about the best interests of most Canada goose hunters.

In the final minutes of the Yates Center meeting, Tom Bidrowski, Wildlife and Parks waterfowl biologist, gave the department’s recommendations for an Oct. 26-Nov.3 and Nov. 13-Feb. 16 Canada goose season. The first segment could allow crowds afield for the opening of the low plains late zone duck season a crack at Canadas. The second segment would take the season as late as federal frameworks permit, giving hunters maximum chances at often sizable north-bound February flocks. He mentioned specific requests from central Kansas hunters, including around Wichita, for the most February days possible.

Bidrowski admitted this season’s request was a departure from the past few, when the second segment opened the same as sandhill crane season, which is the first Wednesday of November, so crane hunters could have a crack at Canadas. That meant the season had to close the second Saturday of February. Bidrowski showed proof Kansas generally has far more Canada geese in mid-February than early November, hence the department’s request for the later season. He also justified the proposed season change since Kansas has about 400 crane hunters but 14,000 goose hunters to consider.

Makes sense to manage for that majority … unless one of those 400 in the minority is a Wildlife and Parks commissioner.

Marshall and his hunting buddies take the opening of sandhill crane season seriously. They scout the best cropfields diligently, have great equipment and share their resources. Current commission chairman Gerald Lauber has been on their hunts as have some state politicians and Wildlife and Parks biggies. I’ve been twice for stories and photos. The time I carried a gun, in 2009, I never fired a shot but Marshall and crew did their best.

Most years, the first few days of crane season the hunters see good action on sandhills, white-fronted and Canada geese and ducks. Marshall apparently didn’t think three out of the four were enough, even though cranes and whitefronts usually greatly outnumber Canadas in early November.

Via Skype, Marshall protested the department request and offered his reasons for why the Canada season should continue to open early rather than run as late as possible. Without Canadas opening Nov. 6 this year, the same as crane season, he predicted an agricultural apocalypse with clouds of geese robbing cattle of waste grain from harvested cornfields and inflicting serious damage on young wheat fields.

“I think farmers will be very upset if we’re not out there defending their crops,” said Marshall, who called the opening of crane season, “probably the best goose week of the year in central Kansas.”

Sorry, those statements don’t fly with some facts.

Marshall and friends could still be out “defending” crops with a later Canada goose opener. They could be afield hunting cranes and whitefronts, which both normally are in far greater numbers than Canadas in early November. Shotguns booming at cranes and whitefronts will spook Canadas just fine.

As for the “best week goose week in central Kansas,” it’s certainly not for Canada geese. Bidrowski presented a chart showing about six percent of the state’s Canada goose harvest comes in early November, with the peak harvest times in late December through January.

Biologists at the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge, which is near where Marshall often hunts, report three of four years of data showed peak Canada goose numbers in about early December. The exception was the fall and winter of 2011-12 when peak numbers were in mid-February, the time Marshall’s proposal took from Kansas hunters.

On my central Kansas hunts it’s rare we get many Canadas until around Thanksgiving. Some of the best goose hunts of my life, including last year’s closing day, have been in February.

Despite the department’s request, charts and figures that showed theirs was the best Canada goose season for the majority of Kansas sportsmen, Marshall got his season on a 7-0 vote. So, the season opens the same as for cranes, and closes Feb. 9.

I was surprised at that, but I wasn’t surprised earlier in the meeting when Budd, as he did last year, got his version of a duck season for southeast Kansas.

Buddozing through

Most new commissioners take to their role gradually, getting their feet a little more wet at each meeting. Budd, of Kansas City, hit his first meetings in 2011 like a cannonball from the high dive with proposals that sounded more like demands. Most pertained to waterfowl, one of his main passions.

It’s obvious Budd, who’s succeeded in a variety of businesses including a pawn shop and farming, and who is a world-class clay target shooter, is used to success and getting his way. He once snapped, “Well look at it again!” when a Wildlife and Parks manager told commissioners he’d looked into one of Budd’s ideas, and didn’t think it worthwhile.

Twice last year, Budd told commissioners those who didn’t respect his waterfowling expertise — and vote his way — probably wouldn’t get his support on other issues. Several times he voiced his disrespect for the department’s waterfowl management plans, often referring to it as outdated and ill-advised.

Last year his main passion was to have as late a duck season as possible for southeast Kansas. In his defense, the southeast zone was created so the area’s hunters could take better advantage of late-arriving flocks of mallards. Before Budd arrived on the commission there were grumblings agency-recommended seasons still weren’t late enough.

Last year, he was the main reason the commission voted 4-3 against the department’s request for a season that went early November through early January and re-opened the last week of January. Biologists wanted those dates to insure those hunting shallow marshes might get several weeks of gunning on early migrants before freeze-up. Instead, the commission went with Budd’s design to place the entire 74-day season from mid-November through the last Sunday of January.

Budd, who manages a southeast Kansas hunting property that is at its best when the weather is at its worst, dictated a late season this year, too. This time he did offer Nov. 2-3 for early-season hunters along with the Nov. 16-Jan. 26 for late season shooting. In Yates Center he said his days would “satisfy 95-percent of the public.”

His percentages are off.

At the Yates Center meeting, people wanting as many late days or early days as possible were about equal. The early season guys, though, had a petition with 80 signatures. They also pointed out that a Wildlife and Parks graph showed about 55 percent of hunters wanted a season earlier than Budd was proposing.

Budd’s desires passed 6-1, meaning early season hunters got two days compared to his 72 days. Nothing else got serious consideration at the meeting. Seems to me there should have been room for compromise.

Actually those wanting more early-season days have a right to be at ticked at Wildlife and Parks, too, for coming with a framework that didn’t work last year. A recommendation that gave the early-season guys two weeks, which would have still allowed late-season hunters their coveted December and January days, might have worked.

Maybe some commissioners might have seen it as win-win and it would have passed …or maybe not. It might all boil down to the back-scratching thing.

Painful process

This year’s sliding of season dates are far from season-breakers. That we’ll have plenty of water, and the migrations should have a lots of birds are more important. Personally, Budd’s duck season works better for places I hunt in the southeast zone, but I’ll miss a potentially great week for Canada geese in February because of Marshall’s season. But I’ll hunt a lot this winter, no matter.

The discouraging thing is how the seasons were changed, with one commissioner making a suggestion and others following dutifully along.

Marshall’s request to also slide a week from first segment to the second of the low plains early duck zone season passed unanimously,too.

But it was the way his goose season was created, with Budd plainly telling Marshall to spell out exactly what he wanted for dates, that just seems wrong. There’s no way that can be seen as being in the best interest of the majority of Kansas goose hunters, yet the vote was quick and with no debate, and I don’t know why.

I’ve wondered if commissioners are intimidated by Budd. I worry they think if they vote along, they’ll someday get reciprocal backing when they have an agenda of their own.

That, I don’t think, would be a laughing matter.