U.S. Wildlife nominee is ensnared in duck dispute

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U.S. Wildlife nominee is ensnared in duck dispute
 
By Alan Bjerga, Eagle Washington bureau

WASHINGTON -- Steve Williams appears caught in the crossfire between North and South in his bid to lead the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The nomination of Williams, head of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, has been placed on hold by Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn., as part of a dispute over the length of duck season in southern states.

Williams said he wants to stay out of the controversy, which has become an annual fight over hunting rights.

But it appears he's already in it. Dayton has said that Williams won't be confirmed until Dayton's fight with Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., is finished.

"We're not trying to make Mr. Williams' life more difficult," said Dayton spokeswoman Sara Howard. "We're just looking out for the interests of our state."

Williams, whom President Bush nominated in July to become the new federal wildlife service chief, has already encountered several bumps on the road to a federal post.

His Senate subcommittee hearing, his first step toward nomination, was originally planned for mid-September but was pushed back by the Sept 11 terrorist attacks.

That hearing took place Oct. 17, the day the House decided to shut down and the Senate scaled back operations over anthrax found on Capitol Hill. The vote that was needed to send Williams' nomination to the Senate floor, originally scheduled for the next day, never took place.

And it might not take place for a while longer, now that Williams is caught in the duck-hunt dispute.

At the center of debate is Lott, who annually lobbies the Fish and Wildlife Service over deep-South duck hunting. Under federal law, southern states are allowed a 51-day season that closes no later than Jan. 31. Northern states can have a 60-day season during the same period.

Lott maintains that the longer season gives northern hunters an advantage, and for several years he has tried to make the southern season's length equal to the North's.

Lott's office did not return phone calls on the dispute. But Dayton's office said southern duck hunters already have a long enough season, citing federal statistics showing that the average Mississippi hunter harvests 22 ducks a year during its season while the average Minnesotan, at the northernmost point of the Mississippi Flyway, takes less than six.

Because ducks are more plentiful in southern states during their duck seasons, a season equal in length to northern states would dangerously reduce the duck population, harming hunters nationwide, Howard said.

Dayton's office also alleges that Lott has threatened to hold up the nomination of Williams and Craig Manson, Bush's nominee as assistant secretary of the interior, unless they go along with his plan. Because Dayton can't let Lott do that, Howard said Dayton is holding up the nominations instead -- for the good of ducks and northern hunters.

"We want an open debate on this issue, and we're willing to wait for it," Howard said, adding that Dayton was lining up a dozen other senators from northern states to publicly back his action in a letter to Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton.

Williams said he would prefer not to wait, but he doesn't have much choice. Any senator can hold up a nomination unless overridden by a two-thirds vote.

And if the nomination never makes it to the floor, Williams could be in limbo indefinitely. Williams said he hopes the issue can be resolved in the next week and that he would rather not take sides until he has been confirmed.

"I don't know what's going on, and I'm not privy to anything," Williams said. "It's not about me. It's about issues that involve the Department of the Interior. I don't want to get in the middle of it.''

Reach Alan Bjerga at (202) 383-6055 or abjerga@krwashington.com.

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Sen. Lott leading fight to add days back to duck season

The news of a possible 60-day duck season, without a nine-day penalty, appears to be good news to Mississippians.

There's a good chance that Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee will be given an extra nine days this season when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces its final dates next week.

The Northern states are against the extra nine days because they think it will deplete the duck populations. One report said the extra days would take a toll on hens already paired up with their mates and possibly force the Mississippi Flyway Zone to reduce season and bag limits in the future.

The report also took a jab at Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who defended his position Thursday. The senator said he would make sure Mississippi gets its fair shot when it comes to duck hunting.

The report said Lott used his political power to pressure the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revisit the duck issue.

This writer would like to throw his support to the senator for standing up for the people and doing what he truly thinks is best.

In 1998, Lott tried to get longer seasons by introducing a bill in Congress. A compromise eventually was struck that allowed hunters in Mississippi to hunt until Jan. 31, but required the state to shave nine days off the 60-day season. The compromise was reached only because it allowed hunting in the state until Jan. 31.

Mississippians agreed to give up nine days for the opportunity to hunt until the end of January, when we see some of our coldest weather of the year. And since ducks fly south from areas like Illinois and Minnesota to find milder winter weather, the end of the month seems like the most logical choice.

When the nine days are factored back in, there's a chance the numbers of ducks harvested will not change since we're already hunting the full month of January. The days are added in December.

As far as hurting the season and bag limits, a member of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks said there is no biological data that supports the claim.

Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., said he was not contacted by Lott about asking for the extension. Had he been, Taylor said, he would have helped out his fellow Coastian.

“That is Trent's deal,” Taylor said from Washington. “If he needed my help, I would have been there. But I have more going on than duck hunting. I'm interested in getting the people back to work at Ingalls Shipbuilding.

“Trent felt he could do this on his own; he didn't need my help.”

I like the new proposal. During my brief duck hunting career, it was obvious that ducks are more plentiful in our area in late January.

A 60-day season, with no penalty, is the right move. If we find out that it does affect the population, then I'm positive Lott will revisit the issue and do the right thing - just like he's doing this time around.

This is a column of opinion by Al Jones, a sportswriter who covers the Outdoors for The Sun Herald. You can reach him at 896-2351 or at afjones@sunherald.com.
 

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