By Peter Urban
The Arkansas delegation has united behind legislation that would allow duck hunting to occur on rolled rice fields.
The legislation, which has been introduced in the Senate and House, would effectively overturn a recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opinion that Arkansas rice farmers had "baited" their fields by rolling them.
The bill would leave it to state cooperative extension services to distinguish between normal agricultural practices and baiting.
"This legislation will resolve the issue by allowing state cooperative extension services to determine common regional practices. The legislation will also give rice producers the ability to manage their land without the fear of losing hunting rights," said Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro.
Crawford, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, introduced the bill in the House Thursday with Reps. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, Mike Ross, D-Prescott, and Steve Womack, R-Rogers, as co-sponsors.
Sens. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., and John Boozman, R-Ark., had introduced a similar bill in the Senate a day earlier.
The USFW issued guidelines last month cautioning rice growers in Arkansas that many of their rolled fields would be off limits to waterfowl hunting this season.
This year's summer drought led to an early rice harvest in Arkansas. Heavy fall rains caused a rare secondary "ratoon" crop to sprout.
If rice heads emerged in those fields, the USFW guidelines state that any manipulation -- such as rolling -- would make it a "baited field" where waterfowl hunting would be illegal.
Jarrod Hardke, rice extension agronomist at the University of Arkansas, said Monday that the USFW guidelines have led some farmers to return waterfowl leases.
Hardke said many farmers have longstanding relationships with waterfowl hunters and do not want to expose them to potential penalties from hunting over baited fields.
"People want to obey the rules, and they are doing their best to do so," he said.