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(For the week of August 24, 2009)
Prepare Legal Dove Fields
by James L. Cummins

Since its formation, Wildlife Mississippi, has worked to clarify the baiting regulations, especially with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).

The baiting regulations seek to encourage the creation of new habitat for migratory birds while providing hunting opportunities consistent with the conservation of this resource.

Under these measures, unless prohibited by state law, hunters may hunt doves where seeds or grains have been scattered solely as the result of a "normal agricultural planting, harvesting, post-harvest manipulation or normal soil stabilization practice." Agricultural practices for hunting are limited to those undertaken to produce and gather a crop and manage the field.

There was a lot of concern by Wildlife Mississippi about prohibiting the hunting over top-sown fields for doves. On March 25, 1998, in the Federal Register, the USFWS proposed to "prohibit hunting any migratory birds over any areas planted by top sowing of seeds where, as a result, the seeds remain on the ground." The proposed action by the USFWS was to simplify and clarify federal laws regulating hunting migratory birds. If the USFWS had adopted the rule, an area seeded by top sowing would have been considered baited until 10 days after the seed or grain has been removed.

The top sowing of crops is a commonly used practice for both agricultural and soil conservation purposes. Top sowing can be used to quickly convert plowed and harvested fields to pastures, reduce erosion and prevent the transfer of nutrients to wetlands, rivers and streams from adjacent lands.

In many states, top sowing is not only a "normal" agricultural practice but is the "recommended" practice as it disturbs less soil than traditional tilling and planting. After further review, the USFWS could see no biological reason for eliminating hunting over this widespread agricultural practice. Excluding top-sown areas would have, in essence, penalized farmers and landowners for practicing soil conservation.

Nevertheless, hunters must remember that they are still responsible for ensuring that their hunting area has not been baited before they start hunting. You should physically inspect the field, talk with the landowner and take other reasonable steps to verify the legality of the hunting area.

In some cases, these changes may create new challenges for state and federal officers. Other changes eliminate ambiguities. The clarifications should serve the interests of conservationists, hunters and law enforcement officers.

James L. Cummins is executive director of Wildlife Mississippi, a non-profit, conservation organization founded to conserve, restore and enhance fish, wildlife and plant resources throughout Mississippi.