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Hunters, residents clash

No guns were drawn, but if that did happen, Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley was ready.

At the beginning, he gave a resonating rap on his body armor. A symbol that he, and not the capacity crowd at the Coupeville Rec Hall, was in control at Monday’s meeting.

The issue was duck hunting in Penn Cove, but for many in attendance, the subject is deeper than that. Of the people that spoke, most had hunted the area for more than 30 years.

“I’m allowed to hunt on Penn Cove,” La Conner resident Ben Welton said, “and that’s a privilege. And folks, I don’t want to give up that privilege.”

But that privilege might be threatened from sources other than local lawmakers. Steve Ellis, a representative of Whidbey Audobahn Society, said that the populations of the popular sea ducks are dwindling at an alarming rate.

According to data from the society’s Christmas bird count, the black scoter has fallen from a high of 325 in 1990 to just one in 2004. The white-winged scoter has taken a dive from 2,446 in 1995 to only 203 in 2004.

“When I went through the numbers, I can only say you can safely hunt a few surf scoters,” Ellis told the crowd. “We can go out there and hunt until they’re all gone — but then what?”

The hunting issue has been a conflict around Penn Cove for more than a decade. At a similar setting 10 years ago, an ordinance barring discharge of firearms within city limits was devised as a compromise.

But the two sides did not seem as eager to meet in the middle Monday night.

“If you try and talk to an anti-hunter, they don’t want to even talk to you,” said Stanley Reed, president of the North Whidbey Sportsmen’s Association.

But many opponents of Penn Cove hunting stress that the issue is noise. Louise Mueller-Wright, who lives at the end of Penn Cove, said that she was awakened at 5 a.m. on Christmas to the sound of hunters.

Madrona Way resident Tim McDonald said that even though he has hunted ducks in the past, the noise can be quite troublesome.

“When I did get a chance to hunt, one of the things I liked to do was get away from houses,” he told the crowd. “It’s incompatible to have housing and hunting 20 feet off shore in 18 inches of water, banging away on Christmas morning.”

But the Department of Fish and Wildlife cannot do anything about the noise. Under the Washington Administrative Code, the discharge of a firearm in the course of hunting is exempt from noise pollution rules.

Hawley said that the Sheriff’s Office responds to more than 300 “shots fired” 911 calls every year. This costs county tax payers $25 per call.

One audience member told Hawley that if people knew that hunting noise was not illegal, it would probably cut down on the number of calls his office has to respond to.

While the representation at the meeting leaned heavily in favor of hunting, several people did speak out against the practice. Penn Cove resident Lauren Mueller said that she felt intimidated at the meeting because of the numbers and organization.

“A lot of us walked out,” she said. “They were being really rude and it was really intimidating.”

Mueller said that she is not sure where the process will end up.

“We’re going to keep fighting if we have to,” she said. “It’s our peace and quiet.”

Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton said that hunting is safe in Island County.

“The current board of county commissioners is not going to ban hunting or try to ban hunting in Island County,” said Shelton, who frequently carries a Ducks Unlimited coffee cup.

Shelton said that organizing a local game commission is high on the list of next steps to take. The commission would take all sides into consideration before recommending a final solution to the schism between hunters and local residents.

More meetings will likely occur before any solution is found.

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

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