Dr. Jim Byford.jpg

Jim Byford

Duck hunters, myself included, are a passionate lot. It’s little wonder.

The anticipation in the pre-dawn of the possibility of new ducks, a steaming cup of coffee in hand, the smell of dogs and gunpowder, good-natured banter among friends – and finally, five minutes before shooting time, the whirring of wings as a squadron of jacks strafe the decoys.

Passion is a good thing. But like most other things in life, it has a downside. We need look no further than the recent tragedy at Reelfoot Lake, where three hunters lost their lives over an ongoing squabble between occupants of two public blinds. Now, I’m seeing disagreement among hunters over the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s proposed changes to the public area-blind allocation system.

It's a shame, because in my opinion, TWRA is doing its job. And that is listening and responding to its constituency. They are trying to provide the best outdoor opportunities on public land, for the most people in a fair, equitable manner, all the while honoring traditions, hunting methods and opportunities for local hunters.

For years, TWRA has received complaints about our public land duck hunting system – mainly hunters wanting to see more fairness in the one-day, in-person, duck blind-draw process and more opportunity for more hunters on public land and water. Hunters complained that the best blinds are often hunted by the same group of people all season in most years. This is often accomplished by successful draw applicants illegally buying and selling these public blinds. This is verified by TWRA officers and area supervisors, but due to the way the system is set up, this illegal activity is impossible to enforce.

As a certified wildlife biologist, a longtime wildlife professional and a Tennessee hunter, I’m proud of TWRA. I’m proud, first of all, that they have finally tackled this thorny issue. I’m also proud of the way they went about it.

They first commissioned the University of Tennessee to survey Tennessee duck hunters a year ago. Based on those results, TWRA drafted a new blind-allocation proposal and then floated it out for public review. After more than 700 responses, they substantially revised the plan, trying to accommodate most concerns. They sent the revised plan out for public review, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission will vote on it Feb. 18.

And while the plan is not perfect for anyone, it has – in my opinion – taken all points of view into consideration. I’m reminded of a Caterpillar slogan years ago, “In life, there are few perfect solutions – only intelligent compromises.”

In a nutshell, the Tennessee duck hunter survey revealed that, among hunters with an opinion, only 38% were satisfied with the current drawing process, and only 33% were happy with season-long blinds.

After the survey and more than 700 responses to the first draft, the revised plan includes computer draws, a priority point system and four tiers of blind availability:

• Tier 1 includes season-long, hunter-built, site hopping or freelance hunting allowed among unoccupied blinds, except tier 2 blinds.

• Tier 2 includes quota hunt blinds for three or four days in TWRA-built blinds and no site hopping.

• Tier 3 includes quota hunt sites for seven days with or without blinds and site hopping allowed.

• Tier 4 includes first-come, first-served sites with or without blinds with no permit required and site hopping allowed.

The TWRA plan, in my opinion, is intelligent compromise. It increases the fairness of both the application and drawing process; honors tradition of certain groups of duck hunters with a number of season-long blinds; allows continued opportunity for local hunters to hop or freelance most sites; allows local draws for unoccupied blinds; involves a priority point system, which gives unsuccessful applicants hope to eventually get to hunt; and allows hunters to hunt without the requirement to build a blind.

For the sake of our sport, for the sake of encouraging our youth by giving them more hunting opportunities and for the sake of civility, I hope we can agree to work together.

Jim Byford is dean emeritus of the University of Tennessee at Martin's college of agriculture and applied sciences and former UT Extension wildlife specialist.

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