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Harford Del. Lisanti withdraws bill on Susquehanna Flats waterfowl hunting; working with hunters on revisions

Del. Mary Ann Lisanti is working to revise a bill related to waterfowl hunting in the Susquehanna Flats area of the Chesapeake Bay, after hearing from multiple hunters and hunting organizations — including some from out of state — concerned that the version of the bill she filed in early February could limit the manner in which people could hunt in the area.

Lisanti has requested that House Bill 911, which the Harford County Democrat filed for a first reading Feb. 2, be removed from the House Environment and Transportation Committee hearing schedule, which had been slated for Friday.

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She made the request in a letter dated Tuesday to committee chair Del. Kumar Barve, “so that we may have an opportunity for a deeper and more expansive conversation about the access to waterfowl hunting opportunities in Maryland’s waterways.”

The initial version of the bill states that people can only hunt in the Susquehanna Flats — within areas designated by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources — “while standing in water on the natural bottom,” but they cannot hunt in the same area while in a boat “that is drifting, being sculled or anchored,” according to the text.

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The Susquehanna Flats covers an area of the upper Chesapeake Bay fed by the Susquehanna, North East and Elk rivers. Generations of hunters have been drawn to communities such as Havre de Grace as they seek to get out in the waters of the Flats and bag ducks and geese.

The Flats is a draw for hunters using the practice of “body booting,” during which people put on wet suits, get in the cold waters and surround themselves with decoys or bird silhouettes as they wait for the waterfowl to drop by.

Havre de Grace City Councilman James Ringsaker, who is a hunter, brought up concerns about the bill during a City Council meeting Tuesday, noting that it could hurt local tourism if only certain types of hunting would be allowed in the Susquehanna Flats.

“I strongly support the heritage of hunting in this area, and body booting,” he said, noting that U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt had visited Havre de Grace to hunt.

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Havre de Grace, known as the “decoy capital of the world,” has historically been a popular destination for waterfowl hunters, especially during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when people would visit from all over the world to harvest canvasback ducks.

Ringsaker said he thinks the bill, in its current form, hurts the hunting community and that he did not support it at present.

“I think that this is very misguided as written, but there are ways we can improve on it,” he said.

Lisanti stressed, in an interview Wednesday, that she has not been satisfied with the bill in its first-draft state. She filed it after hearing concerns from local hunters who engage in body booting and must deal with crowded conditions on the Flats as people hunt by other methods, such as from boats.

The area has become more popular with hunters in recent years thanks to a resurgence in underwater vegetation, such as celery grasses, that are a primary food source for waterfowl. More ducks, in turn, draw more hunters, who also are competing for space with people enjoying other types of outdoor recreation, Lisanti noted.

“A lot of people that have shared their experiences with me are coming to our area from all over the state, all over the country, so it’s becoming very crowded out there ... there’s only so much space,” she said.

Ringsaker also acknowledged that conditions can get crowded out in the Flats. He suggested setting aside a two-week period during the fall and winter waterfowl hunting season just for body booting.

“That might be something that’s a little more advantageous,” he said, noting such a period could allow body booters to “get out there and still practice their heritage, without all the other boats and people coming around, because it can get rather crowded out there.”

The councilman planned to contact Lisanti to discuss “better options” for hunters, including a potential time set aside for body booters, Ringsaker wrote in a follow-up email Thursday.

Lisanti said she has heard from a number of hunters and hunting organization representatives since the bill was filed, sharing concerns similar to those expressed by Ringsaker.

Lisanti emphasized that she does not want to limit forms of hunting. She said her conversations with hunters and their advocates over the bill have prompted discussions about how the state can maintain access to multiple spots along the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries for waterfowl hunting.

Lisanti does not expect that HB911 will be finalized in time for a vote during the General Assembly’s 2021 session, which ends in April. She said she doesn’t want to rush the legislation; “I want it to be right.”

“I decided that it was better to step back and work with all of the people that have shown so much interest, and let’s address the issues as they’ve emerged,” she said.

Lisanti has put together a volunteer work group as she revises the bill. People who want to provide input can contact her through her legislative office, or her website, maryannlisanti.com. She noted state officials must balance conservation with preserving access for hunting and other outdoor recreation.

“I encourage people to email me and talk to me, and if they want to join our conversation they’re welcome to,” she said. “That’s the main premise here — these are public waters, and this is for the public’s enjoyment.”

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