As waterfowl hunting season starts, a fight to ban shooting in this part of Whatcom

A request that would end hunting in Drayton Harbor is pitting hunters against residents over an increasingly populated spot in northwest Whatcom County that both sides agree is special.

The matter went before the Whatcom County Council earlier this month when city of Blaine officials asked the county to create a no-shooting zone on the half of Drayton Harbor that it has authority over.

The other portion is in Blaine city limits and shooting there is already banned.

If enacted, the no-shooting zone would end hunting in Drayton Harbor. It would become the 23rd no-shooting zone in unincorporated Whatcom County.

Ducks and Canada geese are hunted in Drayton Harbor from October through January.

“This is a prized sea duck hunting location for local hunters. It’s a special place for duck hunters in Whatcom County,” Matt Berry, a Blaine resident and member of the Whatcom County Chapter of the Washington Waterfowl Association, said to The Bellingham Herald.

“Sadly, there’s not many left because of urbanization and no-shooting zones in areas growing quickly and becoming densely populated,” he said.

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Semiahmoo Spit, in Blaine, provides access to Semiahmoo Bay, left, and Drayton Harbor. Evan Abell evan.abell@bellinghamherald.com

Drayton Harbor

The harbor is bordered on one side by Semiahmoo Spit, a narrow length of land with lovely beachfront views in a part of Whatcom County that is growing.

With Semiahmoo Bay on the other side of the spit, the area also draws people who go there to walk, kayak, bicycle, paddleboard and bird-watch.

It’s one of the state’s important bird areas, according to Audubon, which describes it as “a major wintering and migration staging area for aquatic birds.”

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Those birds are prized by hunters, including tribal members, who told the County Council that waterfowl hunting there has a long history and tradition.

“Those sea ducks are very important to us in ceremonial uses,” Tino Villaluz, Hunting and Gathering program manager for the Swinomish Tribe, said to the council.

The Swinomish and the Lummi Indian Business Council both oppose the proposal, saying it would violate the hunting rights they secured through the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855.

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A request to create a no-shooting zone in the part of Drayton Harbor controlled by Whatcom County, outlined in black on this map, would, if approved, end hunting there. Ducks and Canada geese are hunted in the harbor from October through January. Whatcom County Public Works Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Blaine officials and residents who lived near Drayton Harbor asked for the no-shooting zone for a number of reasons:

They worried about hunting continuing in an area that, while not densely populated, is growing and expected to keep doing so in the coming years.

“The bottom line is Drayton Harbor is no longer a rural or even a semi-rural area,” resident Paul Johnson said to the County Council. “There has been an explosion of development on both sides of the harbor and it’s really changed things.”

“It’s not a suitable place anymore for there to be shooting,” Johnson said.

They complained about disturbances caused by the sound of shooting, starting as early as 5 a.m., they said.

Because they can’t tell where the city’s boundary in Drayton Harbor is, hunters mistakenly wander into that area to shoot waterfowl.

Blaine officials said residents repeatedly call police and the city during waterfowl hunting season.

“It’s something that comes up time and again,” Blaine City Manager Michael Jones said to The Bellingham Herald.

Hunters and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife said, in response:

Shooting shouldn’t be happening at 5 a.m. because it’s too dark and the earliest start time that’s allowed during the hunting season is 6:20 a.m.

“Five in the morning, it’s pitch-black out,” said Ryan Valentine, a law enforcement officer with Fish and Wildlife who helps oversee Whatcom County, including Drayton Harbor.

To be where they can legally shoot in Drayton Harbor, hunters, who are expected to take a hunter safety course, must go out in boats into the middle of the bay, away from homes.

Shotguns are used to hunt waterfowl and their pellets couldn’t travel far enough to strike residences unless a hunter is too close to shore and outside the boundaries.

In his 16 years here, Valentine said he’s received just a handful of calls about Drayton Harbor — most of them noise-related with no verified complaint of shotgun pellets hitting a residence.

Under state law, the county can’t create a no-shooting zone because of noise.

But council members can if there’s a reasonable likelihood that people, pets or property will be jeopardized, Jonathan Sitkin, an attorney for the city of Blaine, said.

“Is there a likelihood that there could be an incident? Yes,” Sitkin said, referring to what he called an urbanized area around Drayton Harbor.

Jennifer Plombon, a member of the Semiahmoo Resort Association Board, echoed the fears of residents who are asking for a no-shooting zone.

““I’m nervous when I see them shooting in my direction because I don’t know how far out they are,” she said.

The County Council wants time to discuss the matter with Blaine police and to talk to tribal representatives.

They’re expected to talk about it again in November.

For his part, Berry hoped the differing sides could come to an understanding, even as he called some of the ban proponents’ claims “exaggerated” and said they showed a lack of understanding about duck hunting.

Kie Relyea has been a reporter at The Bellingham Herald since 1997 and currently writes about social services and recreation in Whatcom County. She started her career in 1991 as a reporter and editor in Northern California.