SC H4177 Waterfowl Bill: A boon for ducks, sportsmen and conservation
By Ford Walpole
Ducks fly above the water at Santee Coastal Reserve Wildlife Management Area. Photo courtesy of SCDNR.
In South Carolina, the sport of duck hunting has a rich and storied history. From the tidally influenced coastal marshes and rice fields of the Lowcountry to the inland river swamp systems and upstate lakes, sportsmen have long sought waterfowl throughout our unique state.
Thanks to S.C. House Bill 4177, a bill expected soon to become law, this popular pastime is likely not only to improve but also, more importantly, to be preserved for future generations. H4177, known informally as the Waterfowl Bill, was introduced in the State House by Rep. Phillip Lowe of Florence. The bill includes several measures, all aimed at directly benefiting waterfowl and conservation.
First, the bill states that the S.C. Department of Natural Resources’ “chief of wildlife shall establish a statewide waterfowl program manager.” In anticipation of the bill, DNR named biologist Molly Kneece to this position. “Nobody is more qualified for this role than Molly,” declares Billy Dukes, DNR chief of wildlife. “She has a unique combination of educational background and practical experience, and she is an avid duck hunter.”
With the new position, “We want to give as much assistance to DNR and also have a statewide manager,” Lowe says. “You already had statewide managers for other species, but no single waterfowl guru for the whole state. To me, this position gives waterfowl its rightful prominence.”
Second, a Waterfowl Advisory Committee will be formed “to assist in the management of waterfowl habitats, assist in the development, protection and propagation of waterfowl in this state, assist in prioritizing the expenditures of monies to accomplish this purpose and review the activities of the waterfowl program manager of the department.”
Though Lowe will not appoint anyone to the committee, he hopes members “will be people who have managed coastal wetlands, private land managers and former biologists.”
“I have two appointments,” Sen. Chip Campsen says. “I am going to appoint people with 25-30 years’ experience successfully managing habitat. One needs to have experience with freshwater impoundments, and the other should have worked with brackish impoundments.”
“Conservation is a team sport,” DNR Director Robert Boyles recently said at a board meeting for the S.C. Conservation Bank. The establishment of a Waterfowl Advisory Committee reflects that very spirit of collaboration.
Campsen, who has worked closely with Lowe, explains the purpose of the committee: “The advisory committee is not as much about accountability as it is a sounding board. I want advisors with a wealth of knowledge because managing habitat for waterfowl is a very complex field that you can only learn by experience; you can’t learn it by studying a book. I manage a lot of waterfowl habitat myself on my own property, and I understand that it’s part science, but it’s also part art. It takes a lot of experience, and you can never stop learning about any wildlife habitat. We never fully understand God’s creation.
Campsen quotes Ross Catterton, longtime manager of Bear Island, who said: “Every impoundment is different; each one has its own personality and has to be treated a little differently.”
Finally, the bill will raise the state migratory waterfowl permit (duck stamp) to $15.50, and all proceeds will go directly toward waterfowl habitat restoration and management. The state duck stamp was introduced in 1981-1982 at a cost of $5.50, and the cost has not been increased since. This measure will make the Palmetto State’s stamp fee comparable to that of neighboring states. The revenue generated will be earmarked exclusively for waterfowl habitat management and hunting opportunities.
“I think this bill really demonstrates the fact that S.C. is renewing its commitment to waterfowl management by getting this bill passed to have more resources,” remarks Ed Penny, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited’s Southern region. “A lot of credit goes to Phillip Lowe for being deliberate and doing a lot of groundwork before he sponsored a bill. He took his time and did his research.”
Rep. Lowe is certainly no fan of tax increases, and the Republican points out that this bill does not include a tax increase but rather presents a user fee. He explains the philosophy behind the user fee funding of the waterfowl bill: “To direct funds specifically for a purpose without having to compete with the general fund, you sometimes have to raise that money from the group that enjoys it — in this case, sportsmen.”
Campsen worked closely with Lowe on the bill, and he notes that the duck stamp increase is still less than the amount warranted by a Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation calculator. “This bill was not an ivory tower decision by any means,” Campsen explains.
In studying waterfowl needs, Lowe “wanted to hear from rank-and-file duck hunters, and they had seen a decline.” Lowe and Campsen worked closely with duck hunters, Ducks Unlimited, the S.C. Waterfowl Association and S.C. Ducks — all of whom enthusiastically supported the increase.
Addressing the increase in the duck stamp, Campsen says: “In my experience, sportsmen are fine with paying more for licenses so long as the proceeds are going to maintain and enhance habitat and research and the enhancement of species that they enjoy hunting. A fisherman or hunter is almost always willing to pay a fee if it is going to fund their addiction.”
“What this bill does is give a small increase in the duck stamp to help renovate areas and create matching funds. We are not just talking about the $400,000 that will come from raising the duck stamp. Since $250,000 of that is required to have matching funds, we will now have $1.4 million more annually,” explains Lowe.
“DNR certainly welcomes additional funding to manage waterfowl and habitat enhancement,” Dukes says. “This bill will help us to maintain our already successful management. You’re never done maintaining a tidal waterfowl impoundment; it requires constant maintenance.
“Currently, we manage all waterfowl areas as extensively and intensely as we can for habitat and hunter opportunities because we recognize the importance of waterfowl hunting to our constituents,” says Dukes. “We have an aggressive land protection program, and we are always looking for opportunities to add quality waterfowl hunting opportunities through land acquisition.
“DNR relies heavily on Pittman-Robertson money. In addition, we’ve got a lot of really dedicated and innovative people active in seeking grant funding through North American Wetlands Conservation Act (NAWCA) funding, the National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant Program and other opportunities,” says Dukes.
The duck stamp increase will help fund needed projects. “For example, in 2020, we budgeted $62,000 for wood duck projects; now, those same projects cost $100,000. Funds generated by an increase in the duck stamp fee will help with the cost of rising agricultural supplies such as fuel, seed, fertilizer, pump rental and maintenance, and trunk lumber.
“Controlling invasive species like phragmites, or giant reed, is a huge expense for us, but it is necessary to create, maintain and manage waterfowl habitat. Eliminating phragmites actually creates habitat, converting habitat from a place that was unusable to ducks and making it usable. We have been doing projects with Santee Cooper, Ducks Unlimited and the S.C. Waterfowl Association to reduce coverage of giant Salvinia and giant cutgrass to improve hunter access and waterfowl habitat on Lake Marion,” Dukes says.
DNR’s Category 1 Waterfowl Areas allow sportsmen to hunt “only by special permit obtained through an annual drawing.” In the past, hunters typically could expect to be drawn for a hunt every two years. However, Lowe realized that “hunters were having to wait four years to duck hunt such areas because of a decline in the total number of lottery draws available — due to dike or spillway problems.”
Storms in recent years have compromised the dikes surrounding impoundments on many of the state’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMA). Breaches occurred on Bear Island and Murphy Island. Samworth WMA and Santee-Delta West WMA are currently closed for duck hunters. Portions of other WMAs are also damaged. “A bad event in nature can change things overnight. It was a problem growing like legs on an octopus,” says Lowe.
Subsequently, Lowe called a special meeting with DNR to review the status and needs of Category I Waterfowl Areas. “Twenty-seven million dollars in repairs was needed across our state. We tried to concentrate our efforts to get Samworth repaired first. They just finished the dikes and are beginning to work inside, which had turned into a white marsh; cut grass seven feet high had taken over, and it doesn’t produce food or open areas for waterfowl. The original food bed produces wild seeds and food for waterfowl. You have to bush hog it, burn it and disk it two or three times to kill the root beds of the cut grass. We are systematically trying to repair several category one WMAs.
“We have not funded the upkeep of the WMA system as well as we could have,” Lowe points out. “Of course, waterfowl habitat management is a lot more expensive practice than managing for other species. Not only do you have planting, but you have to maintain dikes and trunks. DNR now has more land to manage but has struggled with adequate funding for management. It’s important to try to find a recurring funding mechanism.”
For Lowe, preserving S.C.’s duck hunting legacy is personal. “I am a lifelong outdoorsman. I manage duck properties, and I have traveled the continent hunting ducks. I finally got to a position where I could help DNR with funding, so they can properly manage the properties we have entrusted to them,” he continues.
“I serve on the House Ways and Means Committee and am chair of the subcommittee that oversees the DNR budget and the S.C. Conservation Bank. This year in the House budget, we have funded a combined $100 million to set aside property for conservation and wildlife management areas; $68 million will go to DNR and $32 million for the S.C. Conservation Bank. This year is the largest year ever for conservation.”
The Waterfowl Bill includes a sunset clause; in 2027, the duck stamp fee will revert back to $5.50. “If we’re not getting results, we will have to do something different. These properties need to be cared for,” Lowe says.
“Sunset is a good tool; it is a reflection of legislative humility,” notes Campsen. “We can be wrong; we know we’re not omniscient or perfect. If we prove to be right, the legislature will reauthorize it. It’s a five-year experiment. It’s really about whether the wildlife management program is working. And how do you define if it is working? If it is, we will have better habitat and more meaningful hunting opportunities, higher numbers of waterfowl and a larger percentage of waterfowl wintering in our habitat. If we have that in five years, the General Assembly will take another look and extend it.”
Charles Lane, conservation advocate and duck hunter, comments on the benefits of the Waterfowl Bill. Regarding the Waterfowl Advisory Committee, “peer review is always good,” he says. “Having an advisory group aid in policy and management decisions is a great thing.”
Lane also considers the increase in the duck stamp fee to be “long overdue. We need more financial resources because of inflation and the threat of development. It requires resources to promote good conservation solutions. To increase a small cost is a minimal impediment to someone’s ability to hunt waterfowl. It’s less money than the cost of a box of shotgun shells.”
Ed Penny of Ducks Unlimited touts the Waterfowl Bill: “S.C. has an amazing number of extremely avid duck hunters who travel to places like Canada, Mississippi and Arkansas to hunt ducks. We applaud S.C. for being willing to invest some money in their own state to improve hunting opportunities and habitat in S.C., and this bill will do just that!”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.