Arkansas Lawmakers Again Seek Duck Hunt Fix

WASHINGTON — Arkansas could decide for itself if duck hunting can occur on rolled rice fields under legislation introduced Thursday in the House and Senate.

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, introduced the bills aimed at resolve an ongoing dispute between U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Arkansas rice farmers over “baited” fields.

In 2012, the agency warned rice growers that some of their fields that had been rolled — as farmers often do after harvest — could be off limits to waterfowl hunting. That summer’s drought led to an early rice harvest, which was followed by heavy rains that caused a rare secondary “ratoon” crop to sprout. In Arkansas, local cooperative extension offices advised farmers to plow under the secondary rice to return nutrients to the soil.

Fish and Wildlife cautioned them that if rice heads emerge from those fields, they would be considered “baited” and therefore illegal for waterfowl hunting. The law is intended to prohibit hunters from luring ducks or other game to them with food. Many Arkansas rice farmers lease their fields to migratory waterfowl hunters but that year refrained because of the potential penalties from hunting over baited fields.

Crawford and Cotton would make an exemption from the “baited” rule if farmers are following best practices provided by their state Cooperative Extension Office.

“Rice farmers in my district routinely roll their fields,” Crawford said. “However, under current federal rules, if a ratoon crop emerges after initial harvest, farmers can’t manipulate those fields and still hunt on them. As the law now stands, farmers must choose between tending to their fields or hunting during duck season. I don’t believe our hunters and farmers should be punished by federal agencies for taking care of the land in the way they know best.”

Cotton said the bill “will provide much needed relief to Arkansas farmers and provide a resolution to a problem created by big government overregulation.”

The House last year included a similar provision in a broader hunting and fishing bill that it passed, 268 to 154. The Senate, however, did not take the bill up before the 113th session ended.