Too much water, even for ducks?
Sounds unlikely, but Arkansas game officials are planning to create shallower wetlands in some of the state’s most popular public duck hunting grounds — particularly the Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area east of Pine Bluff.
Hunters will be wading into diminished waters there and at Hurricane Lake WMA near Bald Knob as the state tries to save something ducks like almost as much as water: small acorns.
A “new normal” of heavy rain events and high water in spring and summer led to a September announcement that water levels will be kept lower in areas the state calls “green tree reservoirs.” The objective is letting red oak trees dry out and recover from an H2O overdose in recent growing seasons.
The plans, announced in September, brought predictable complaints from hunters losing some access at the WMAs and perhaps facing the prospect of fewer ducks in the field for the short term. But other hunters, wildlife management experts and businesses catering to hunters say that saving the trees will keep Arkansas’ flyways attractive to migrating mallards and other game ducks.
“With increased water in recent years, trees have been stressed and dying, and the woods have essentially started transitioning away from red oaks to more water tolerant species like the overcup oak that produce acorns a duck simply can’t ingest,” said Luke Naylor, the coordinator of the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s waterfowl program.
“What we’re planning is based on crazy spring weather and just massive rain events. But that’s a new normal, and we’re just going to have to be ready for it,” Naylor said. “It’s a major investment timewise and financially for the commission.” A grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act has provided about $4 million toward the projects, but Naylor said he wouldn’t be surprised by a $100 million price tag on fully renovating the state’s four green tree reservoirs.
Changes will be visible at Bayou Meto, formally the George H. Dunklin Jr. Bayou Meto WMA, the Henry Gray Hurricane Lake WMA and the Earl Buss Bayou DeView WMA. The first 2021 duck season began Saturday and ends Nov. 29. The season will resume Dec. 11-23, then reopen Dec. 26 through the end of January.
Duck hunting is big business in Arkansas, with some 100,000 residents and visitors carrying shotguns and duck calls through the woods each winter. During the season, they contribute nearly $1 million a day to Arkansas’ economy. The state’s 50,000 acres of publicly accessible green tree reservoirs and countless private acres of flooded rice fields draw hunters from across the nation and beyond. Along with conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited, the Game & Fish Commission has managed the wetlands for decades, turning the Mississippi Flyway into a mecca for ducks and the people who shoot them.
This year’s wetland management changes are all geared to prevent further stress on the valuable red oaks in lands that the state has been managing with levees and water gates for many years. Areas would flood for the winter duck season, then drain off by the following summer. But a string of wet years intervened, taking a toll on trees.
Hurricane Lake WMA’s south green tree reservoir area experienced a major tree die-off in 2018, which spurred the G&FC to open the water-control gates and draft plans to help water flow through the area. Those plans are in motion now, and this year the commission will leave the Glaise Creek water control structure open near Bald Knob “to allow water to flow through the North GTR instead of artificially holding it back,” said Brad Carner, chief of wildlife management for the G&FC.
“We’re not pulling the plug on green tree reservoirs; we’re doubling down on them,” said Austin Booth, the Game & Fish Commission director. He added that conditions immediately preceding the die-off in the Hurricane Lake WMA are beginning to be seen in portions of Bayou Meto’s green tree reservoirs near DeWitt.
With much of the red oak in Bayou Meto showing severe stress, managers are limiting all intentional flooding in that area at 179 feet above mean sea level, an elevation a foot lower than the previous mark. “Rain and increased flow into the WMA will allow water to rise above that level periodically, but artificial flooding will be stopped at the 179 MSL mark,” the commission said. Next year, the level will be kept 6 inches lower still, at 178.5 feet.
The G&FC investment could yield big dividends, said Cason Short, manager of the storied Byers’ Hunter Club in Woodruff County. “The habitat is in dire straits, and the Game & Fish Commission is in a really unfortunate situation. They have to take away some access and opportunity from public hunters, because of the lower water levels.”
Short, grandson of the hunting camp’s founder, Bill Byers, said measures to keep the ducks swarming in over the long haul are crucial. “We do our own habitat work here, and if you understand science, the life cycle of trees, you understand this is a necessity. The objective is to get regeneration, some regeneration of trees. Hurricane is really, really bleak, and Bayou Meto isn’t as bad, but it’s following the same course.”
“The struggle point is the inability to get water off of these green tree reservoirs, mainly in the springtime,” said Brent Birch, director of the Little Rock Technology Park and editor of Greenhead, Arkansas Business Publishing Group’s duck hunting magazine. “We accumulate all this rain, and when the trees come out of dormancy and start producing leaves, they’re throttled by this water that’s well above the root system. This damages the trees, makes them swell, stunts them and eventually kills them.”
Tom Denniston, owner of Fort Thompson Sporting Goods in Sherwood, said he’s a fan of the G&FC’s habitat plan. “I’m totally for it,” he told Arkansas Business just a day after returning from a pheasant hunt in South Dakota. “I’m all about trying to keep the duck woods in good shape for my grandkids. In fact, I wish they’d be even more restrictive in the WMAs.”
He said he hadn’t heard much complaining about habitat management. “I think most people recognized something had to be done. This is about preserving the sport.”
Denniston, 61, who says he was about 12 when he killed his first duck, said gear for waterfowl hunters makes up about 35% of sales in his store. With the exception of some problems getting merchandise in, he says recent business “has been great.”
Saving trees in the WMAs will ensure future generations the chance to hunt … and to buy waders and ammo at Fort Thompson, Denniston said.
Acorns provide a significant amount of protein and energy for ducks, Birch said, but ducks are picky. Arkansas bottomlands are filled with trees in the white oak family, particularly the overcup oak, which handles wetter grounds. The catch is that ducks cannot eat overcup acorns; they’re too large to be swallowed whole.
“A lot of hunters on social media get on a soapbox to oppose these measures, but it’s obvious to me that they don’t really understand the issue at hand,” Birch said. “But business owners that serve hunters, or really anybody who has spent time trying to understand what’s going on, understand why they’re doing it. They have come to the realization that this is real. And they know if nothing is done, future generations will never get to experience hunting at Bayou Meto.”
‘A Happy Medium’
John Adams, COO of Natural Gear of Little Rock, a maker of camouflage hunting apparel, said hunters can be opinionated, but that most of his clients appreciate that game officials are tackling the problem. “They’re trying to find a solution that works for everybody, but the situation they’re in makes it hard to find a happy medium,” said Adams, who added that duck hunters are second only to deerslayers in supporting Natural Gear. “I think most hunters are reasonable, and they understand these are things that had to be done.”
While some grouse that duck hunting isn’t what it used to be, that hasn’t stopped them from flocking to Byers’ Hunter Club, which is booked with 50-100 hunters over the season and has been for years. “Business has been really good,” Short said. “We were booked pretty far in advance, so the last month or so we’ve been turning people away. We were booked up last year, when a lot of people were staying home.” The club opened Saturday for the first short season.
Some hunters complained about late notice on the WMA changes, noting Booth’s announcement came just 90 days before the opening of duck season. But Naylor, the waterfowl program chief, said adjustments in wetlands management will now be a late-summer ritual, because the latest data is crucial. “That, too, is going to be a new normal.”
Warmer weather patterns have already affected duck migration and behavior, Birch said.
“We had a really abnormally warm duck hunting season last year, and the warmer it is, the less ducks have to eat,” Birch said. “They just sit all day because they’re not burning calories staying warm. Also, if the states above us, like Missouri, don’t get snow to cover the food, those ducks won’t have to leave to go farther south.
“The ducks have gotten so smart that they’ve adapted to come out almost at sundown or even when it’s dark outside. They get up early to eat at first light and go back into where they just sit all day. They have figured out that nobody’s shooting at them at night. Climate change has definitely had an impact; weather doesn’t push ducks as hard as it did in the past.”