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Inside the Outdoors: Two sides to Ojibwe bands’ ban on early duck and goose hunting

Inside the Outdoors with Mike Rahn

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In just a matter of days, the first shotgun volleys of the 2022 Minnesota waterfowl hunting season will be fired. The early teal hunting season—now in the second year of a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources experiment—will open on Saturday, September 3, along with the state’s September over-water Canada goose hunt. But unless an eleventh-hour agreement is reached, some of the state’s prime waterfowl hunting waters—which happen also to be wild rice-producing waters—will be off-limits.

The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe has announced that key wild rice waters within reservation boundaries will not be open to the general public for waterfowl hunting during the Sept. 3-7 early teal season, the open-water Canada goose season that runs Sept. 3-18, or Youth Waterfowl Weekend, Sept. 17-18. This includes wild rice waters on parts of Lakes Winnibigoshish, Cass and Bowstring, and other waters identified on a map that can be found at www.llojibwe.org/drm. This is not a general waterfowl hunting ban on all waters within reservation boundaries. But it is does include areas known to be especially popular with waterfowl hunters.

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As this is being written, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe is believed intending to proclaim a similar ban on wild rice waters within its own reservation boundaries, during some or all of the same period. In 2021, both Leech Lake and White Earth Bands prohibited waterfowl hunting during the early teal season, as well as the over-water Canada goose season. This year, these designated wild rice waters will be opened to public hunting with the state’s general waterfowl hunting season on Saturday, Sept. 24.

The rationale for these restrictions by the two Ojibwe bands is perceived danger to band members who will be harvesting wild rice during that time. The Minnesota DNR does not appear to agree that the potential for danger or conflict justifies the bands’ closure of these waters. The DNR points out that for roughly two decades before its early September teal season was initiated in 2021, the Leech Lake band did not restrict access to wild ricing waters during the over-water Canada goose hunts that began in early September.

However, some of the DNR’s own personnel had raised the issue of potential ricer and hunter conflict years ago, when talk of implementing an early teal season began. A close acquaintance of mine, now retired from the DNR Section of Wildlife, is both an avid waterfowl hunter and a wild rice harvester. He recalls raising the timing and conflict issue then, and—figuratively wearing his ricer’s hat—telling DNR administration that “They’ll be shooting at us.” His concern was basically dismissed.

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The DNR’s logic for holding an early teal season three weeks before the general waterfowl opener in late September is that many blue-wing teal migrate out of Minnesota by the start of the regular waterfowl season. Some do, of course, but—even when waterfowl hunting openers were in October, as was the decades-long tradition—teal were still one of the most common ducks in opening weekend hunters’ bags.

It’s easy to see how wild rice harvest and waterfowl hunting could be at odds with one another. Waterfowl hunting typically involves stealth, including quiet and immobility when hunting over decoys from a blind. Wild rice harvest requires actively poling a canoe through a stand of rice, all the while beating the slender stalks with sticks to dislodge the rice kernels. Lots of motion and noise. Either side would have grounds for frustration if they discovered that an area where they intended to hunt or rice had been preempted, or was being disturbed by, the other. Wild ricing would not pose a risk of physical harm to a duck hunter, but the opposite would not be true, given the role of firearms in waterfowl hunting.

Then there is the fact cited by the Minnesota DNR that each year the agency contributes a percentage of Minnesotans’ fishing and hunting license revenues to the Leech Lake band of Ojibwe, in exchange for public fishing and hunting access to band lands and waters. This year that amount was about $2.3 million. This ongoing arrangement was arrived at by negotiation, instead of engaging in a court battle to decide how to divide up the harvest of game and fish on band lands and waters between the general public and band members. In the press, it’s being said that the DNR is considering reducing the amount it pays the Leech Lake band as a result of the September hunting restrictions of last year and this.

Not everyone who hunts ducks and geese is heartbroken over the two Ojibwe bands banning waterfowl hunting on its designated wild rice waters before the regular waterfowl opener arrives on Sept. 24. There are quite a few hunters who have not been onboard with some of the Minnesota DNR’s regulatory changes that have been intended to increase hunter harvest.

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Mike Rahn, columnist

For starters, and central to the actions of the Leech Lake and White Earth Ojibwe bands described here, is the fact that waterfowl hunting now begins a full month earlier than was the long tradition. Rules that protected locally nesting birds have been largely abandoned. Species-specific limits have been relaxed more to increase hunter harvest than because the birds’ numbers justify it. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s survey of breeding waterfowl this year—which had not been conducted since 2019, thanks to the COVID pandemic—found more available nesting habitat than there were breeding ducks to occupy it.

It’s easy to pick and choose statistics to support one’s personal point of view. But the fact remains that duck numbers are not what they used to be. Quite a few hunters think that relaxing the rules on when, what and how many waterfowl we harvest is not a prescription for better hunting, now or for the future.

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