Focused on fowl

Juneau duck hunters hit the wetlands

Posted: Sunday, September 14, 2003

W hen most people in Juneau hunker down in their homes during the wet fall season, duck hunters brave the cold and rain to hang out in the Mendenhall Wetland State Game Refuge in hopes of shooting a meal.

But it's not always the chance of acquiring dinner that brings hunters to the refuge.

"It's a kind of heritage thing for me," said Art Dunn, who has hunted in Juneau for 20 years and still owns the shotgun his great-grandfather used to shoot ducks in Michigan.

Waking up before sunrise to wade out into the wetlands, the camouflage-clad hunters take pleasure in the silence and the expertise duck hunting requires, Dunn said.

"I enjoy being out there and being in places and doing things where there isn't a crowd and it's real challenging," he said. "You never get to be a total expert at it."

Duck hunting season began Sept. 1 and continues until Dec. 16 this year, said Neil Barten, area wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

In Juneau, duck hunters primarily stalk the Mendenhall Wetlands. They access the 4,000-acre refuge from Sunny Point, the residential neighborhood across Egan Drive from the Gas-n-Go Petro Express; the channel-side pullout from Egan Drive between Sunny Point and the Vanderbilt Hill Road intersection; and the airport dike trail near the airport.

As chairman of the Southeast district of Alaska Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving wetlands, Dunn keeps close tabs on the number of hunters in Juneau.

"We have 320 members of Ducks Unlimited locally," he said. Of those, about 60 percent are duck hunters; the others join to support conservation efforts.

The total number of duck hunters here is about 500, Dunn estimated.

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, more than 140 species of birds, most of them migratory, find food and refuge in the Mendenhall Wetlands at some point during the year.

The majority of hunters go after only a few of those species, Barten said.

"Mallards and pintails and widgeons and green wing teal - those are probably the main four," he said.

Hunters are allowed to kill a total of seven "puddle" ducks or six sea ducks per day, but there are restrictions within those restrictions - such as off-limit birds - that necessitate a hunter reading the guidelines closely, Barten said.

The waterfowl Juneau hunters seek don't make their way to Juneau until late

August or early September. And not all the ducks that migrate here are desirable, Dunn said.

"There are ducks that some people think aren't the tastiest," he said. "Sea ducks, a lot of people don't care for sea ducks because the food they eat makes them kind of fishy."

But ethics - and state law - dictate that a hunter shouldn't shoot a bird he or she doesn't intend to eat, meaning a hunter has to have more knowledge than just how to use a shotgun, Dunn said.

Educating hunters in the ethics of duck hunting in the Mendenhall Wetlands is the purpose of an annual waterfowl workshop held by Fish and Game and the Juneau Gun Club, said Barten.

"Usually about 35 to 45 people show up, and a large part of that clinic is classroom-oriented in the morning, where we have a large aerial photo of the wetlands and show hunters where the sensitive areas are," Barten said.

The other part of the class focuses on gun skills, making sure hunters know the range of their guns and understand the nature of the wetlands requires hunters to be aware of other users.

In years past, hunters have had issues with what they call "sprinkling" - steel pellets from the 12-guage shotguns falling back to the ground after a shot, Dunn said.

Though the pellets are not likely to hurt anybody - they bounce off of a bird if fired from more than 60 yards away, Dunn said- sprinkling on people, pets and houses must be avoided. To that end, ADF&G for the first time this year required permits for hunters on the wetlands. The permits are free, but they allow the department to track wetland use and to educate hunters on regulations, Barten said.

"We stress to hunters that it is a privilege and it is something that can be taken away," Barten said.

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