Duck Hunters Take Legal Shot at Game & Fish Commission

by George Waldon  on Monday, Oct. 15, 2012 12:00 am  

Northeast Arkansas duck hunters won an injunction last week against the G&FC's plan to dismantle privately maintained blinds on public lands. (Photo by AGFC)

Duck hunters got a reprieve last week from an order that would have ended special accommodations that only exist in three northeast Arkansas wildlife management areas.

Circuit Judge Randy Philhours of Paragould issued a temporary stay to prevent the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission from enforcing its deadline to remove personal property and privately maintained hunting blinds from the Big Lake WMA and St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA.

Though privately maintained, the blinds on these public lands are supposed to be available on a first-come, first-served basis. But that equal access theory is sometimes put to the test through disputes the Game & Fish doesn't want to police.

Locked doors, ownership signs and warnings against trespassing on some blinds underscore the controversy.

On Wednesday in Marion, Philhours presided over an injunction hearing to suspend the Oct. 15 deadline and possibly overturn the changes approved by the G&F Commission. The Oct. 10 hearing will be continued as soon as time can be found in his court schedule during the next two weeks.

The legal dispute with northeast tangents galore has drawn statewide interest.

"We have a judge based out of Greene County overseeing a case that was filed in Poinsett County for a hearing held in Crittenden County regarding a lawsuit against a state agency out of Pulaski County brought by a lawyer out of Monroe County," said David Carruth, a Clarendon lawyer. "What more could we ask?"

Carruth filed the lawsuit on behalf of the St. Francis Lake Association of Trumann (Poinsett County). Carruth estimates that the group represents 300 to 400 members with hunting and fishing interests in northeast Arkansas.

Also at issue in the dispute is the G&F Commission's decision to quit allowing hunters to maintain duck holes and leave their decoys in place overnight during duck season on another public property: Dave Donaldson Black River WMA.

The commission doesn't allow hunters to cut trees or remove brush on any other WMAs in Arkansas. Duck hunters at all other WMAs are required to remove decoys daily. As with the permanent duck blinds, the practice of leaving decoys in place overnight implies ownership of hunting space on public land.

These local traditions at the three WMAs, tolerated for years by the G&F Commission, sometimes led to disputes between hunters where first-come, first-served is supposed to be the norm on all public land.

Supporters of the status quo argue the misdeeds of the few, regarding equal access to public lands, shouldn't be used as an excuse to overturn a traditional arrangement that has worked for decades.

The agency decided to bring the duck hunting practices at Big Lake, St. Francis Sunken Lands and Dave Donaldson Black River in line with its other public lands this year. The G&F Commission unanimously approved the move in August, and hunters were given notice they had through Oct. 14 to remove personal property and blinds.

"We were geared up ready to go on [Oct. 15]," said Keith Stephens, public information coordinator with the Game & Fish Commission. "We were going to start dismantling blinds."

As of Oct. 10, the Jonesboro regional office of the Game & Fish Commission had issued 158 permits to hunters to get personal property from blinds or remove the blinds. The free permits were issued for 97 blinds in Big Lake WMA and 61 blinds in St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA.

Many of the existing blind locations were already in place in the 1950s when the commission purchased the initial tracts of land associated with these wildlife management areas.

To help fade the political heat, the G&F Commission turned to Uncle Sam. State officials realized, just this year, that their long-running special allowances on public lands might violate funding terms with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

The purchase of the wildlife management areas was accomplished through a 75/25 match of federal and state funds.

"In reality, the tradition of using permanent blinds is more of a matter of convenience than it is of necessity," G&F Director Loren Hitchcock wrote in a July 3 letter to Dr. Neal Vickers, president of the Trumann Chamber of Commerce.

The controversy prompted Dustin McDaniel to wade in on the issue, not in his official capacity as Arkansas attorney general but as a concerned duck hunter who grew up in northeast Arkansas.

"I share the concerns of many that the removal of first-come, first-serve duck blinds would have on the quality of the hunting experiences," McDaniel wrote in support of leaving duck hunting practices at the three WMAs unchanged.

Hunting Disputes Cited in Effort to End Special Rules

Excerpt from an April 4, 2012, letter from Ricky Chastain, deputy director of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, to Mike Piccirilli, regional chief of the Wildlife & Sport Fish Restoration Program for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

"Since 2007, commission regulations have permitted the use and maintenance of permanent duck hunting blinds on Big Lake and St. Francis Sunken Lands WMAs in an attempt to control a continual expansion in the number of and locations impacted by permanent hunting blinds.

"Only blinds which have been assigned an identification number by the commission on or before June 30, 2006, are allowed to remain on the area.

Currently there are approximately 165 inventoried blinds on Big Lake WMA, 120 inventoried blinds on St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA and 200 maintained holes on Dave Donaldson Black River WMA.*

"Construction of new blinds is currently prohibited, but annual maintenance of inventoried blinds is permitted.

"Duck hunting blinds are not permitted on Dave Donaldson Black River WMA. However, hunters are allowed to maintain duck hunting holes and leave their decoys in place overnight during duck season.

"The blinds and holes have historically been maintained and used by local hunting parties. Anecdotal reports suggested some of the hunting parties maintaining the blinds and holes have attempted to control access and prevent other hunters from using these areas.

"Numerous reports and complaints have been made by hunters who have attempted to use the blinds and holes but were turned away by local hunting parties known to have maintained and regularly used the blinds and holes.

"Over the past three or four years, the reports from hunters have become more tangible.

There were seven reported hunter harassment-related incidents on these three areas during the 2011-2012 waterfowl hunting season.

"Dave Donaldson Black River had two complaints with one citation issued for hunter harassment ...

"Big Lake had two complaints, with one case still pending in court due to a hunter being shot.

"St. Francis Sunken Lands had three complaints with one citation issued for hunter harassment ..."

*The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission doesn't allow anyone to maintain permanent duck blinds or duck holes or leave decoys in place overnight on any other public WMAs.



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