Mar 22, 2024

Advocacy: Groundwater pumping exemption bill, biodegradable wads, pintail adaptive harvest management revision and new California Fish and Game Commission member

By Mark Hennelly, Vice President for Advocacy

Presented by Federal Premium® Ammunition

(Originally published in the Spring 2024 issue of California Waterfowl)

Groundwater pumping exemption bill for wetlands clears Assembly

In January, Assembly Bill 828 (Damon Connolly, D-San Rafael), which would provide certain managed wetlands a three-year exemption from much of the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), passed the floor of the state Assembly and will next be heard in the state Senate.

SGMA was signed into law in 2014 but is only now beginning to be phased in via plans developed by local groundwater sustainability agencies, especially in overdrafted basins. In such priority basins, groundwater must be sustainably managed by the year 2040.

A number of wetland and waterfowl conservation organizations, including CWA, strongly support the bill and helped draft AB 828’s wetland exemption provisions. Many duck clubs in the Tulare Basin and east Grasslands that rely wholly or partly on groundwater pumping are finding it exceedingly difficult to comply with SGMA-related pumping restrictions and fees. Without some sort of relief, some clubs will be unable to flood their wetland properties, resulting in both a loss of critical waterfowl habitat and hunting opportunities.

AB 828’s exemptions would apply to managed wetlands under state and federal conservation easements or similar longer-term management agreements, as well as state wildlife areas and ecological reserves. Because national wildlife refuges are federally owned in fee-title, they are already effectively exempt from SGMA implementation.

The next hearing on AB 828 will be in late March or April, likely in the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee.

Wildlife Resources Committee considers feasibility of biodegradable wads for waterfowl hunting

In January, the California Fish and Game Commission’s Wildlife Resources Committee received a report from the Surfrider Foundation regarding aquatic pollution from plastic shotgun wads. CWA and a number of concerned hunters provided testimony at the hearing.

While the report emphasized the ecological need to reduce plastics in the aquatic environment, it did not endorse more regulations or restrictions. Rather, it emphasized the need for more education, information gathering and incentive-based approaches.

CWA argued that, considering all the other restrictions on ammunition in California, any new mandate at this point would only result in fewer people waterfowl hunting, which would mean less funding and support for wetland and waterfowl conservation efforts.

Currently, switching over to biodegradable wads presents significant challenges. Very few, if any, sporting goods stores in California right now offer ammunition with biodegradable wads. Ordering ammunition online or through mail order is also challenging since all transactions must be face-to-face and there are some FFLs that will not process internet and mail order sales.

Another problem is the higher cost of this type of specialized shotshell. Hunter surveys have suggested that additional costs negatively impact outdoor participation. The price of waterfowl loads has already increased significantly in the last five years, with some boxes of non-toxic ammunition now costing upwards of $60-70. With the new 11% ammunition tax set to kick in on July 1 via the passage of AB 28, the cost will rise even higher.

Shotshell performance is also unclear. Do biodegradable wads perform as effectively as plastic ones, especially with harder pellet materials like tungsten? Will biodegradable wads deteriorate over time if someone doesn’t use them for 5-10 years? These are questions that need to be answered.

CWA agreed that incentives should be considered to encourage hunters to try out shells that rely on biodegradable wads, and that more research is needed on the subject. We also pointed out that many waterfowl hunters already participate in refuge cleanup days during the off season; in light of this, efforts should be undertaken to organize cleanup days in areas where plastic wad pollution is most problematic.

Progress with pintail adaptive harvest management revision

CWA continues to advocate for and closely monitor our longstanding request for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to update the harvest strategy for pintail, with the goal of providing at least a three-bird bag option.

As we have previously mentioned, growing scientific evidence suggests that hunter harvest has little effect on pintail populations. Instead, the most important factor influencing pintail populations is suitable breeding habitat (including available nesting cover and waterfowl-friendly farming practices in the Canadian Prairies).

We also believe that pintail harvest is likely overestimated and that pintail populations are currently underestimated. Increasing the pintail bag limit not only aligns with the preferences of the majority of our members; it would also encourage more duck clubs and other private landowners in California to provide pintail wintering habitat.

According to the latest information from the USFWS’s Division of Migratory Bird Management:

“The National Pintail Working Group has mostly completed their work, and there is now considerable consensus on technical and policy elements of the revised strategy. A draft revised harvest strategy has been vetted with the Harvest Management Working Group (December 2023). The next step is to share the draft strategy with the Flyway technical committees and then the Councils (March 2024).

“We expect that the Councils will be forwarding a recommendation to the Service Regulations Committee (SRC) at their spring meeting. If approved by the SRC, the revised strategy could be implemented in the 2025-26 season after going through the normal rule making process with opportunities for public input and comment.”

While we are pleased with the significant progress, we believe it’s critical to continue to meet with the USFWS and Flyway Council representatives in other states on this issue. CWA will be attending the Pacific Flyway Council and other Flyway meetings in March in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to reiterate our desire for a more liberal pintail harvest strategy.

CWA also penned a letter on this issue to the USFWS that was signed by three other state waterfowl groups from the Pacific Flyway. The letter’s intent is to ensure that waterfowl groups have a meaningful opportunity to comment on the pintail model and that changes can be incorporated into the final model if flaws are identified by us.

Governor appoints new member to California Fish and Game Commission

In January, Governor Newsom appointed Darius Anderson as a member of the California Fish and Game Commission (Commission). Amongst many other responsibilities, the five-member Commission approves annual waterfowl seasons and bag limits, other hunting regulations and the allowable uses for the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s state wildlife Areas.

Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of Wing and Barrel Ranch in Sonoma, which provides high-quality sporting clays and upland game bird hunting opportunities. He is also a political strategist who has worked in Sacramento for many years as owner of Platinum Advisors, an advocacy firm with a reach extending across all 50 states.

CWA has worked with Anderson periodically since the mid-2000s on a variety of hunting- and other sportsmen-related issues. We believe he will bring a great deal of expertise to the Commission, especially on the impact of hunting and fishing regulations on public participation.

Anderson fills the seat left vacant by the departure of Commissioner Anthony Williams. His appointment requires confirmation by the California state Senate.