MISSOULA — Rock musician Huey Lewis and several of his Stevensville-area neighbors are feeding ducks along a slough that runs through their property, effectively closing the area to duck hunting.
It's the latest twist in the story of the slough, which the Montana Supreme Court has ruled a public waterway, subjecting it to the state's stream access laws. Owners along the 15-mile tributary to the Bitterroot River argued it was a man-made feature and not subject to the state's public access law.
Lewis said he and others started placing feeders along the slough about two months ago. Mitchell Slough has had bait stations for quail and pheasants for several years.
"I'm feeding ducks all over my place — many of us neighbors are," Lewis said. "The reason is the Supreme Court decision has changed everything here, and now we have public access. And most of us believe the Mitchell is unsuitable for duck hunting."
Lewis said the waterway is too close to homes for safe hunting and he argues wading hunters will hurt the slough's fish population.
The feeding stations surprised Missoula duck hunter Ron Pence, who saw Lewis' feeders as he was wading up the slough between Victor and Stevensville on Tuesday.
"It's attracted every duck in the area," Pence said. "Legally, if I know where a bait pile is, I can't hunt around there or I'll get cited. Now you'd have to do an aerial survey before you can ever hunt around there again."
It is legal to feed game birds and waterfowl, but it is not legal to hunt in an area where such birds are baited.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks warden captain Jeff Darrah said the agency was aware of Lewis' feeders.
"Federal law says you can't hunt a field that's been baited," Darrah said. "That's his way of saying you can't hunt here."
Another area landowner, Ed Hebner, noted that any hunters would have to get permission from landowners to retrieve a duck.
"There's not a landowner along the Mitchell that will allow any duck hunter to retrieve a duck on his property," Hebner said.
Other landowners along the slough include Charles Schwab, founder of the investment firm Charles Schwab Corp., and Ken Siebel, managing director of Private Wealth Partners, which provides financial planning services to wealthy clientele.
Darrah said FWP officials have been meeting with landowners and public access advocates to work out rules for passing through the slough, but he said the duck hunting question had not come up before.
"We're going to take a look at waterfowl hunting on Mitchell Slough," he said. "There may be places where it's not appropriate. But some areas may be appropriate. We're not willing to say its closed yet."