By Jenny Neyman
Steve Meyer has been fall duck hunting on the Kenai River Flats since he was a kid over 30 years ago, practicing his shots at communal duck blinds set up even before he ever set foot on the flats, and teaching his kids to do the same. Some seasons Meyer spends as many as 90 days hunting between September and December.
“I’m pretty avid, and frankly I don’t shoot that many ducks. I just love doing it,” Meyer said.
Meyer’s habits haven’t changed much over the years, but somewhere along the line the legality of them did. He and his fellow flats duck hunters have been informed that the blinds they’ve used for decades and much of the territory they shoot from is off limits, and has been for quite some time.
“It’s traditional. We’ve been doing this for as long as any of us can remember, hunting these areas, and there was never any problem. Now all of a sudden Parks decided they’re going to start enforcing something we weren’t even aware of,” Meyer said.
The Kenai River Flats are under the jurisdiction of the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, managed locally by the Kenai River Special Management Area. Parks regulations stipulate no hunting within a half-mile of any developed structures on the flats — including homes, roads, parking lots and the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge — and no permanent structures.
That means the two blinds hunters have been using for decades had to go.
“Those blinds had been left alone all these years, they’d almost become community blinds. People took their kids out there, and they were fairly close and easy access, and all of a sudden this year they disappeared,” Meyer said.
The fact that the blinds had been there for so long without being torn down and replaced every time a hunter used them made them permanent structures, which aren’t allowed in state parks, said Jack Sinclair, area Parks superintendent. Perhaps the department could have done better in warning hunters the blinds were going to be removed, but the result would have been the same, he said.
“In the end we would have to have those out of there anyway. There wasn’t any way to compromise on that particular issue,” Sinclair said.
The issue of shooting boundaries may be negotiable, at least hunters hope it is.
The common practice on the flats is to keep a quarter-mile distance from structures when shooting.
“All the duck hunters that have been down there this year are kind of stunned that we’re not allowed to hunt down there anymore,” said Scott Miller, of Soldotna.
“Last year Parks started constricting where we could hunt. They were being very cordial about it, trying to inform us these areas we traditionally hunted out there were being closed down, not because they’d been open, but they’re starting to enforce the original KRSMA half-mile rule,” he said.
KRSMA took over management of the flats in 1985. The purpose of the half-mile restriction is to protect people and property along the flats. Hunters say that’s more space than necessary, and Meyer and others took a proposal to the KRSMA board Oct. 9 to request a change to a quarter-mile shooting restriction.
The 15 or so hunters making the request have a report on the lethality of shotguns used in waterfowl hunting showing they are safe beyond a quarter mile. They also found examples from around the Kenai Peninsula, state and country where a quarter-mile restriction is the norm for shotgun hunting, including Watson Lake on the Sterling flats, the Anchorage coastal area and Mendenhall Lake in Juneau.
Hunters asked Parks representatives if people living along the flats had complained about duck hunters over the years while they were operating on a quarter-mile boundary. They had not.
“We’re a pretty responsible group of people. They never had complaints, it just didn’t happen. We weren’t shooting up people’s houses or anything like that,” Meyer said.
So why is it a problem? And why now?
It’s a problem because the regulations stipulate a half-mile, Sinclair said.
“Now after all these years they have more money because of the oil (increased state revenue from high oil prices), they’re getting more enforcement officers down there,” Miller said.
The half-mile restriction cuts off prime hunting areas, including the major ponds many hunters like to frequent, Miller said. You either have to get a boat and float the river, or do like Meyer does and walk out beyond the KRSMA border about a mile and a quarter below the bridge.
“There’s essentially almost nowhere you can hunt from Eagle Rock down until you get way down on the flats,” Miller said.
The flats have been a favorite hunting spot for Miller’s family for decades. He’s hunted there with his dad, and his brother, Brian, has recently gotten into it. They’ve taught their kids to hunt, as well.
“It’s a fun, family thing, just kind of a nice area close to home. You can get out there on a weekend or evening or something and do a little duck hunting and fishing,” Miller said.
“We have all been kind of closed in down there because of development and we know we can’t hunt how we used to 20 years ago, but we still want to have an area to go,” he said. “We realize we’ve been restricted because of the housing, and that’s fine, but I’d like to see the areas that can be open, opened, because that’s not really a reason to shut down a traditional-use thing.”
Meyer said the flats are the best hunting spot close to town. Beyond that is the outlet of Skilak Lake, but that’s not ideal because fall rainbow trout fishermen can make it dangerous to hunt there.
“We’re just running out of places to go. It seems like it’s another stab at hunters, and Alaska’s supposed to be kind of about hunting. It’s just as traditional as any subsistence here, or any of the fishing that we have here,” Meyer said. “We’re kind of a minority, but people who want to hunt, that’s part of why we’re here. It may not seem like a big thing, but it’s just another one of those small segments that gets pulled away from people, and then it’s on to the next thing. It just gets a little concerning.”
Sinclair said there’s nothing he can do about the regulation — it has to go through the board process to be changed — but he hopes to see that happen by next hunting season.
“I think Parks realizes, at least I do, that there’s a need to have those kind of uses maintained on the river. I don’t think we’re trying to block that from happening,” Sinclair said.
Meyer said he’s going to stay involved in the process, in the hope that hunters’ traditional use of the flats becomes legal use once again.
“We’re certainly going to give it our best shot,” he said.