Duck and Cover

Duck and Cover

April 18, 2008 by

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Duck and Cover
Opponents and proponents of duck hunting clash over the future of Dyke Marsh.

By Michael Lee Pope
Wednesday, April 09, 2008 Bookmark and Share

Evan Phelps always wanted to pursue duck hunting, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that he decided to pick up the sport. Since then he has scouted out areas in Northern Virginia where he can use his duck-hunting license, issued by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Sometimes he treks from his home in Falls Church down to the Rappahannock River to get his gear in place before the crack of down. Closer to home, Phelps likes to hunt for ducks near Dyke Marsh.

"You have to get there and have your equipment set up and be ready to go before the sun comes up," said Phelps. "So avoiding a three-hour drive down to the Rappahannock would definitely be a good thing."

But duck hunting near Dyke Marsh has been called into a question now that an agreement between the National Park Service and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has expired. Federal, state and local officials have engaged in preliminary talks about the future of duck hunting in this area, although no timeline has been set for when a decision might be made. Opponents say that duck hunting in this area is dangerous, while advocates say residents, joggers and preservationists have nothing to fear.

"We are prepared to renew the agreement, and we see no reason for changing it," said Jerry Sims, a wildlife biologist manager with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "From our perspective, this has been a very successful method of hunting in Dyke Marsh."

BUT NOT EVERYONE wants the terms of the expired agreement extended, and a debate has erupted between opponents and proponents of duck hunting near Dyke Marsh. The clash of perspectives comes during a time when government officials are hearing from community members, duck hunters, nature preservationists and nearby homeowners. Those who would like to see an end to duck hunting in this area say that the time has passed for this kind of activity near the federally protected land at Dyke Marsh.

"It’s just not appropriate to have duck hunting where people are walking, jogging, working in their gardens or playing with their children," said Glenda Booth, president of the Friends of Dyke Marsh. "Erection of a duck blind near a community makes people feel unsafe."

Advocates of duck hunting say that people who live near areas where ducks are hunted have nothing to fear. They point to a lack of complaints filed with state agencies about problems with duck hunters, and point out that no significant safety concerns have arisen as a result of hunting in this area. Department officials say that licensed duck hunters know the rules and operate in a fashion that is no cause for concern.

"The pellets are in a close pattern when you shoot the shotgun," said Julia Dixon, a spokeswoman for the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "But the pellets scatter and loose velocity as they are propelled away from the shotgun."

NOW THAT THE agreement between federal and state officials has expired, officials have engaged in preliminary talks about what a future agreement might look like and what its terms might be. Officials with the National Park Service maintain that their chief concern is preserving the land at Dyke Marsh, which they have a congressional mandate to do. David Vela, the superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, said that he wasn’t even sure the National Park Service had legal standing to enter into another agreement because the hunting blinds approved in the original agreement were not on federal lands.

"Our role in this remains to be seen," said Vela. "We are still in the preliminary stages of this, and it’s not something we are going to rush into."

While some residents who live near Dyke Marsh said they would like to see an end to duck hunting in the area, others take a view with more nuance. Southdown Road homeowner Larry Hirsh said that he would like to see a potential future agreement that increases the distance that hunters are required to keep. Hirsh, who describes himself as "pro-firearm and pro-hunting," said he would like to see a stipulation that would keep duck hunters at least 1,000 yards from his house.

"When we are eating on Thanksgiving we don’t want to see a duck get blasted like in some cartoon," said Hirsh. "Who wants to have shotguns going off near your house on Sunday morning?"

Others say that duck hunting is unsafe in Mount Vernon no matter what the rules are. Katherine Ward, co-chairwoman of the Mount Vernon Council of Citizens Associations, said that hunters can be rude and disrespectful of people who are trying to enjoy coffee in their own back yards. She said that many of her neighbors feel that duck hunting has become a danger that they would rather live without.

"This is no longer a rural area," said Ward. "Things change, and duck hunting is just no longer appropriate here."

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