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Murrells Inlet: Bird sanctuary forum becomes debate over change

By Jason Lesley

Jimmy Kidd brought his sons dressed in camouflage to a meeting about banning duck hunting in Murrells Inlet last week. They had good seats in the community center to the great American debate: the culture war between change and keeping things like they’ve always been.

Some residents had proposed making Murrells Inlet a bird sanctuary, saying development has changed the place from the old days. Birding and nature-based tourism would benefit the community more, they said. Conspiracy theories and rumors of secret agendas were floated by people wanting to preserve their way of life as hunters. Yellow sheets of paper placed on chairs prior to the meeting said a petition for making the inlet a bird sanctuary was the fantasy of a few retired people with “a foreign lifestyle and value system.” Nobody admitted to distributing the papers.

Bill Chandler, born and raised at the inlet, proposed a bird sanctuary after finding egrets and herons shot in Oaks Creek by what he called “slob hunters.” He said there aren’t enough ducks left in Murrells Inlet to justify allowing hunting to continue. He said he’s been shooting ducks and guiding hunts there since the early 1940s.

He said there are mostly fish-eating ducks like mergansers and buffleheads, considered poor table fare, in the inlet these days. Mallards, pintails and teal are more plentiful on the Waccamaw River.

“The first shot fired in the inlet,” he said, “the good ducks lift straight up and get out of there.” Chandler, dressed in his National Rifle Association hat and a shirt depicting ducks in flight, said he guaranteed hunters were shooting illegal birds. “The fact those birds were piled up,” he said, “suggests to me that somebody threw them out of a boat to keep from getting caught.”

As for the yellow sheets of paper claiming the proposal of a bird sanctuary was about imposing a foreign value system on Murrells Inlet, Chandler said it was bad information. “If it says I came from outside, I don’t know what it takes to be inside,” he said.

Making the inlet a bird sanctuary was not on the table for discussion last week. State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch said he was not comfortable with the idea of a sanctuary but wanted to allow people to voice their opinions about banning hunting. He called a hunting ban “a sweeping change, something different from our historical traditions here.” He said he was willing to have the conversation, understanding that Murrells Inlet is no longer like the place he grew up. “It’s developed,” he said “to a point hunting makes some people uncomfortable.”

Steve Thomas came from Rock Hill to attend the meeting. He said he has been a birder since age 10 and has gotten seven or eight “life birds” in Murrells Inlet. He said both sides of the debate want to see the sky full of birds. They should find a way to work together. “If we throw out the hunters,” he said, “guess what, your ranks are cut in half. That reduces the number of people who care about Murrells Inlet by half.”

Speakers pointed out that birding is a better economic driver than duck hunting. Nolan Schillerstrom of Audubon South Carolina said bird watchers spent $467 million in the state in 2011. “People will travel to places specifically to bird,” he said. “This adds value to Murrells Inlet.” Gates Roll, a wildlife guide who grew up in the inlet, sent a letter by his mother, Allison Creagh, that said he has had days birding in Murrells Inlet that rivaled days in Cape Romain. Tom Hora said the inlet could blossom into an Atlantic Coast flyway. “We need to so something big, really big,” he said.

Mike Brady said he agreed with some of the bird sanctuary petition but said the community was not informed. “We just found out about this,” he said. “What’s next?”

Charlie Campbell, owner of the Dead Dog Saloon and the Claw House restaurants on the Marsh Walk, said he’d only heard about the movement to make the inlet a bird sanctuary two weeks ago. Campbell said the Marsh Walk is “the driving engine of Georgetown County when it comes to cash, taxes and employment.” He had his own fears about making the inlet a bird sanctuary. “Are we going to find out that our live music is hurting birds?” he asked. “The Fourth of July fireworks? Someone walking around the inlet having a good time disturbing birds because they had too many beers? This opens the floodgates to change.”

David Christian had his own theory: “This is anti-gun,” he said, “nothing to do with birds.”

Gary Weinreich, a supporter of the bird sanctuary petition that circulated in the inlet since last October, said there was nothing underhanded about the movement. He insisted rumors that a sanctuary would ban legal activities like fishing, smoking, boating, swimming, dogs and firearms did not resemble the proposal.

Still, it was fear of the unintended consequences of making the inlet a bird sanctuary that drove opponents to rally and Goldfinch to reduce the scope to a no-hunting zone. “A sanctuary scares us,” said Al Hitchcock, co-owner of Drunken Jack’s restaurant. He said it was a disgrace to shoot legally protected birds and violators face up to a $2,500 fine. He thanked Goldfinch for denying the request for a sanctuary.

John Hannah of the Mount Gilead community suggested moving the hunting zone further off the shores and prosecuting those who shoot anything other than ducks. “Put ’em in jail,” he said.

Aaron Clay questioned how a no-hunting law would be enforced. He wanted to teach his two boys to hunt in Murrells Inlet. His answer was more hunter education and law enforcement. Goldfinch said he had acquired funding for two additional wildlife officers for Georgetown County, and one would be assigned to Murrells Inlet.

Improved law enforcement was welcome news for Gene Connell of Mount Gilead. He said hunters had shot the lights out on his dock. “We need to do something about this,” he said. “This is not the inlet of old, not a place to be hunting. Safety is a real serious problem. Someone’s going to get hurt.”

Nathan Landers said he knew of one particular group of kids shooting illegal birds. “They were reprimanded by DNR,” he said. “We need more enforcement on the water. Taking away everything from people using our resources right is not the correct answer. I want to see my kids grow up the same way we grew up. It’s safer in the inlet than on the river.”

Murrells Inlet as a safe training ground for young hunters became a recurring theme. Robert Thompson said it’s safer than Winyah Bay, North and South Santee, the Waccamaw or the Pee Dee. “You get in trouble out there at 4:30 in the morning you die. We go to a funeral. Terrible. Out here, they call me and I go pick them up off an oyster reef and bring them home,” he said. “That’s what it boils down to. That’s who’s hunting.”

If shorebirds and birds of prey are being killed, there are laws in place to prosecute shooters. “They need to go to jail,” Thompson said.

Corrin Hoke said she tried to rescue a pelican that had been shot. It was flapping around on Business 17. She called the Center of Birds of Prey, and a volunteer took the bird to its facility near Awendaw. It died the next day.

Kidd, who brought his sons to the meeting, said they learned to hunt in the inlet because it’s a safe place. “I can go to the Waccamaw and the North Santee in 20 degree weather but they can’t,” he said. “I don’t feel safe taking them out there. This is what I’m here for.”

Cynthia Nance doubted people would listen to her because she is “just a woman.” She blamed parents for not supervising young hunters. “It’s time,” she said, “for locals to stand up for Murrells Inlet and teach people how to act.”

Goldfinch said there would be no resolution to the issue at the meeting. “What I heard here tonight was not that the birders or the hunters or the environmentalists are against each other,” he said. “It sounds to me like this entire room is against the outlaws.”

Lawmakers will meet with DNR before decision on hunting

State Sen. Stephen Goldfinch said there’s been no decision on eliminating hunting from Murrells Inlet following a community meeting last week.

Resident Bill Chandler proposed making the inlet a bird sanctuary after he began finding herons, egrets and shorebirds that had been shot by what he termed “slob hunters” in the creek near his house. Before the meeting, he wrote about the

See “Inlet,” Page 2

From Front Page

killing of a tundra swan on a foggy morning and how its mate for life kept returning in vain.

Prior to last week’s meeting, Goldfinch told Chandler and supporters he would not agree to a bird sanctuary for the inlet but would call a community meeting to discuss making it a no-hunting zone. Rumors circulated around the community that bird sanctuaries carried unintended consequences that would ban other legal activities.

Goldfinch said he was torn about the proposal. “I come into ideas with preconceived notions,” he said at the meeting. “Things I grew up with, things I understand, my way of life are not always right for my constituents.” He thought the mood of the people was overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the inlet open to duck hunting.

Goldfinch said he, Rep. Lee Hewitt and Rep. Russell Frye, who missed the meeting for the birth of a child, would make a decision after consulting with the Department of Natural Resources.

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