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Penn Cove takes aim at hunters

An early morning wake up for most people involves an incessant alarm clock, or an overzealous cat with a cold nose. But for Penn Cove resident Mike Starring, his winter days begin a bit differently.

“The noise rattles my windows, the dog pisses on the floor and that’s how I begin my day at 5 a.m.,” Starring said.

The commotion that interrupts his slumber is the thunder of a shotgun and the conquest of a hunter over an elusive sea duck. Penn Cove is a prime hunting ground, but its residents are making an equally loud noise over the shotgun blasts the permeate the winter hunting season.

At a gathering last week, a new community group evolved, the Friends of Penn Cove. Its mission? To stop duck hunting inside Penn Cove. The group has been circulating a petition to appeal to lawmakers to ban the centuries-old practice.

Lauren Mueller said she lives at the west end of Penn Cove for the tranquility it offers. The hunting, however, interrupts that.

“It’s disturbing the peace and quiet . . .” she said. “It’s like we’re in the middle of a war zone.”

Hunting season officially ended Jan. 30. According to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regulations, the split season was Oct. 16 to 20, 2004 and Oct. 23, 2004 to Jan. 30, 2005.

The group’s concern centers around a quality of life issue. The noise rattles windows, scares animals and is disruptive.

“It starts before daylight, and it continues all day long,” Starring said.

According to the regulations, people wishing to hunt sea ducks must have written authorization from WDFW. This was the first year of this requirement and 903 people have permission to hunt.

Steve Ellis, who coordinates the annual Christmas Bird Count for the Audubon Society, said the problem might be solving itsself. Counts for species hunters commonly target are way down, he said.

The black scoter, which had averaged 168 birds between 1987 and 2002, only saw one bird this winter. The count saw 203 white-winged scoter, compared to its record high 10 years ago of 2,446.

“The numbers are down, but I’m not blaming the hunters — something’s wrong,” Ellis said. “I know hunters, and if they were presented with these numbers, they’d stop hunting.”

Ellis proposed that a moratorium be placed on hunting in Penn Cove to give scientists time to study why the numbers are dropping so rapidly.

“The populations can’t handle any more birds taken out of them for any reason,” Ellis said. “It doesn’t take a real mathematician to figure out that if guys take eight goldeneye, it won’t take real long for that population of 130 to go away.”

But hunters seem to be aware of the dwindling resources available for the pursuit of an activity that most consider a lifestyle. Former Oak Harbor resident Ben Welton said he has been hunting in Penn Cove since he moved to the area in 1980. He said his involvement with conservation issues began before that.

He is currently a national delegate for Ducks Unlimited and he is the senior director for the Washington Brant Coalition, which is dedicated to the preservation of a type of goose.

Welton, who now lives near La Conner also has a history with the controversy of hunting in Penn Cove. He has been the target of citizens groups before, having met them at open house meetings in the past. He used to run a guide service that took people in search of a trophy duck to Penn Cove.

“Hunters are governed by international regulations, federal regulations, state regulations and town regulations,” Welton said. “If there’s hunters breaking the law, then they would have been cited by someone.”

Welton said he has had people scream profanity at him and vandalize his vehicle. He said that one person attempted to scare the ducks away from him by blowing an airhorn, which succeeded only in drawing more ducks in.

“Penn Cove was a hunting area centuries before the European settlers got here,” Welton said. “I want to be there when someone tells the Native Americans that they can no longer hunt or harvest there.”

Welton said the issue for most of the residents in the area is a noise issue.

“A lot of people have moved to Whidbey for the rural culture,” Welton said. “Fishing and hunting is part of the rural culture. It’s not just growing pumpkins and corn.”

For now, hunting remains legal during the appropriate seasons. Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said that the Board of County Commissioners will tackle the issue sometime in the spring.

And Friends of Penn Cove will continue its mission in an open meeting at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 21, at Madrona Massage.

You can reach News-Times reporter Eric Berto at eberto@whidbeynewstimes.com

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