Arkansas is famous for its natural beauty and its numerous opportunities to hunt, fish and explore the outdoors.
Yet, while thousands take to the woods and fields and wetlands each year, they have access to a limited number of public acres. Only about 10% of Arkansas’s land is public; the rest is privately owned.
But that doesn’t mean the owners of the other 90% are indifferent to conservation and the health of wildlife habitat. In fact, many farmers and other private landowners are eager to improve their grounds for wildlife — they just need to know how.
That’s where the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission can help.
“If you ever want to make a large-scale impact, it’s going to have to be more of a grassroots effort to get private landowners to buy in and manage their own lands for wildlife,” said AGFC Statewide Private Lands Supervisor Ted Zawislak.
The AGFC offers technical assistance to private landowners through a number of programs and a statewide staff of private lands biologists. The biologists are in 10 regions covering six to eight counties each, plus Zawislak and Private Lands Assistant Supervisor Bubba Groves, and are ready to work with owners to offer habitat recommendations based on owners’ specific objectives.
These specialized biologists can help provide a written wildlife management plan, along with up-to-date aerial photos to identify where wildlife practices are recommended to be enacted. They also can help the landowners navigate the nuances of the federal programs and assist with paperwork.
“We’re almost like a wildlife consultant,” Zawislak said. “It’s a free-of-charge program. It’s tax dollars at work, where we come out and visit with the landowner, walk over their property and give them recommendations on what they can do for wildlife.”
State and federal agencies, as well as private organizations, offer financial assistance.
Federal help can be found in Farm Bill programs, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Reserve Program. These offer incentives or easement payments, cost-share payments and other financial assistance.
“If they do want a program, our folks get them set up on some conservation programs that will offset the cost of wildlife management practices,” Zawislak said. “Improving your property is not cheap. Anybody who has bought a tract of land and tried to do anything, build a house on it or a cabin, knows improving property is expensive.”
The AGFC Private Lands Program features Acres for Wildlife, the Arkansas Waterfowl RICE program, the Deer Management Assistance Program and Bring Back the Bobwhite.
“There’s some programs that we administer,” Zawislak said. “But the majority of programs we help people with are federal programs.”
Quail Forever is a national nonprofit with chapters in 40 states, including Arkansas. State Coordinator Ryan Diener said the chapter is part of a three-way partnership with the AGFC and the National Resources Conservation Service of the Department of Agriculture.
Diener said, with a staff of 20 biologists and five habitat specialists, Quail Forever can assist landowners in things like controlled burns and forest thinning, and introducing native vegetation and ferbs (wildflowers).
Like the AGFC biologists, the Quail Forever team helps landowners navigate the various programs available. Conservation in Arkansas practically hinges on private landowner participation, Diener said.
“If we’re going to have success on any measurable scale for wildlife conservation here in Arkansas, whether that’s quail or turkey or deer, it’s largely going to rely on private landowners doing good work and being good stewards of their land to create habitat for these animals."
Some private landowners, Zawislak said, realize they have the means to meet their objectives on their own, in which case the AGFC biologists are still happy to provide advice and instruction.
“It doesn’t matter to us which way it gets done just as long as it gets done,” Zawislak said.
In the most recent fiscal year, the biologists made 1,134 site visits, 553 of them first-time visits and 580 follow-ups. Pre-COVID-19, the staff also hosted 31 workshops and helped AGFC partners with another 73 events, with a total attendance of about 3,400.
Zawislak said it is hoped the programs, over time, will expand curated habitat to adjoin public lands and create contiguous stretches of prime grounds for wildlife.
“Some of these landowners not only improved their own property, they went and got their neighbors involved,” Zawislak said. “That’s the thing about this, it spreads. And then also for the wildlife you don’t have just an island of good habitat, you’re starting to build big blocks of land.”