Duck hunting is undervalued in Arkansas, according to experts who spoke at a Duck-Onomics panel Tuesday at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
Hosted by the Little Rock Rotary Club, the panel included Brent Birch, Corey Dunn and Gardner Lile. Birch, executive director of the Little Rock Technology Park, is editor and co-creator of Greenhead: The Arkansas Duck Hunting Magazine, and author of "The Grand Prairie, A History of Duck Hunting's Hallowed Ground." He is also co-host of the Standard Sportsman podcast.
Dunn is director of development for Ducks Unlimited Arkansas. Lile is executive broker for Lile Real Estate, which specializes in rural real estate with an emphasis on recreational hunting properties.
Skot Covert, meteorologist for KTHV in Little rock, moderated the event.
Mitch Bettis, president of the Little Rock Rotary Club, said the purpose of the presentation was to help the Little Rock's business community understand the profound economic impact of duck hunting to the Arkansas economy.
"The importance of that is illustrated by 50,000 out-of-staters that come to our state to hunt ducks," Bettis said. "That is why we need to support that from a policy standpoint, to support it within the conservation culture, in land management and the sport itself."
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, duck hunting has an economic impact of about $70 million annually in Arkansas, Covert said.
"That's a little more than a million dollars a day in a 60-day duck season," Covert added.
Birch said he believes that number is low and does not account for the recent and climbing popularity of duck hunting.
"I know it's way more than a million [dollars] a day," Birch said. "That number is probably 30 years old or older, not counting inflation, but also the value of land, the value of equipment, what boats cost, what trucks cost.
"Duck hunting has become a 12-month deal. Dogs run field trials and hunting tests, and they do year-round events tied to duck boats. It doesn't account for trap shooting and skeet shooting and land management. It's a whole different investment than when that 1 million number came about."
Dunn agreed that $1 million per day is low based on the investments of land managers that actually manage property in Arkansas to provide habitat for ducks that migrate to the state in the winter.
"It's substantially higher," Lile said. "There are lot of conservation payments from WRP [Wetland Reserve Program], CRP [Conservation Reserve Program] and new programs that are coming out to flood fields and provide habitat for wintering waterfowl, on top of boats and sporting goods, et cetera."
Additional money flows to farmers that participate in the Arkansas Waterfowl Rice Incentive Conservation Enhancement program, Lile said. WRICE is an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission initiative that pays landowners a fee to leave a portion of their rice crop unharvested and flooded in order to provide food and habitat for ducks. Participating landowners make their fields available for public hunting through a computerized drawing that the Game and Fish Commission holds.
Recently, Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed into law a conservation program that will provide $3.5 million in grants to landowners that implement waterfowl friendly management practices on their property. The program complements the Wetland and Riparian Zones tax credit program administered by the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, which encourages landowners to protect and create wetlands to benefit wildlife.
Birch said government assistance is necessary to incentivize farmers to provide food and habitat for ducks, which hatch in the upper Great Plains and migrate to Arkansas in the winter. In the heyday of Arkansas duck hunting, farmers harvested their rice in October and November, Birch said. Now they harvest rice in August and September, long before ducks arrive. Modern harvesters leave only about 40 pounds of waste grain per acre. It re-sprouts before ducks arrive and does not provide them any nutrition. As soon as the harvest is completed, farmers begin preparing their fields for planting in the spring, which buries any residual food.
"We're going to start offering tax breaks for farmers not to work their fields up early, leave the ground untouched and leave everything ducks need to desire to come to Arkansas," Birch said.
Duck hunting is a major driver for rural real estate prices and values, Lile said. Green tree habitat, which has no agricultural value, is some of the most expensive. In South-Central Arkansas, which is not in a major duck migration flyway, green timber property costs $2,000 to $4,000 per acre, Lile said. In Southeast Arkansas -- the heart of the Mississippi Flyway -- it costs about $12,000 to $15,000 per acre and rising.
"In the last 10 years, there's been so much wealth created," Lile said. "There's such a drive to own your own piece of rural real estate that has proven duck hunting. Demand has outpaced supply so dramatically. If you have it, you can name your price."
Duck hunters also lease duck hunting land. That's additional money for farmers.
"The good lord is not making any more oak tree impoundments that ducks like," Birch said. "I have heard there's a doctor group from Kentucky that leases a big chunk in Northeast Arkansas for a half a million per year. That's for a 60-day duck season. That's probably the high end."
Hunters also pay waterfowl outfitters for daily hunts, and corporations rent duck hunting lodges to entertain clients in a duck hunting environment, Birch said. Out of state hunters stay in local motels, and they rent Airbnb's.
"A lot of smaller communities are living off that 60-day duck season," Dunn said. "Without that injected into the economy, a lot of those places don't exist the way the exist today. We get 50,000 hunters from out of state every year on top of the 50,000 we have in-state. They don't go to those places without duck season."