The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission on Thursday announced major changes to how it manages water in green tree reservoirs in wildlife management areas, a move aimed at long-term preservation with an uncertain impact on the state's duck hunting industry.
Concerns over timber health at reservoirs at the Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area have led the agency to lower the mean sea level from 180 to 179 this hunting season, commission Director Austin Booth said in a news conference. The mean sea level will be lowered to 178.5 next hunting season.
The agency will also leave a water control structure open at Glaise Creek to end the artificial containment of water at the Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area, where massive swaths of trees have died in recent years under stress from high water.
Additionally, the agency will allow water to rise and fall naturally at the Thompson Tract of the Bayou DeView Wildlife Management Area to help the forest regenerate.
The goal is to protect oak trees and preserve duck habitats, but it could affect access and navigation of the areas and reduce acreage available to waterfowl hunters.
Booth said he discussed the measures with a hunting outfitter who said they would hurt him financially over the next few years but ultimately keep his business alive.
“As Arkansas waterfowlers, what’s more important to us? Is it our short-term success in duck season?” Booth said at the news conference. “Or is it the long-term interest of the resources, so that little boys and little girls can fall in love with Bayou Meto and flooded timber the same way that I have? And when you look at it through that lens … this resource that this state is known worldwide for is worth protecting and it’s worth saving. Even if we have to do hard things now to do it.”
Hunting season is a boon for communities surrounding the wildlife management areas. Stuttgart, which is located near the 33,000-acre Bayou Meto, once estimated that it generates $1 million per day for the local economy.
Commission spokesperson Spencer Griffith said it’s difficult to predict how the preservation measures will affect hunters and the communities that provide them with gear, lodging and dining.
The agency is working to prevent a dropoff this season by keeping hunters informed about water levels so they can plan ahead. Officials have also reached out to local chambers of commerce about the changes.
Hunting participation in Arkansas rebounded during the COVID-19 pandemic last season after a decade of decline, according to Griffith.
The Game & Fish Commission’s push for sustainable recreation comes after it identified conditions at Bayou Meto similar to those that for years preceded the die-off at Hurricane Lake.
“The goal with Bayou Meto is to prevent Bayou Meto from turning into Hurricane,” Booth said. “We are not pulling the plug on green tree reservoirs and the hunting experience that it has brought Arkansans for years and years and years … We’re doubling down on them. Because to ensure that these GTRs are around for the next generation of Arkansans, the time to act is now.”