Hunters hear renovation plans for NEA WMA

About 200 people attended meetings Saturday with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at Pocahontas and Jonesboro to discuss renovations at Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area.

The Pocahontas meeting drew 140 people. About 60 attended the Jonesboro meeting. Both meetings were civil and calm.

The topic was the commission's desire to renovate the green tree reservoir at the 25,000-acre wildlife management area in Northeast Arkansas. It, like Bayou Meto WMA near Stuttgart and Henry Gray Hurricane Lake WMA near Bald Knob, have experienced severe damage to their bottomland hardwood forests due to decades of mismanaging water.

Flooded bottomland hardwood forests are essential habitat for migratory waterfowl in the winter, but the quality of habitat is seriously degraded because water stays on the trees too late into the year, and the water is often stagnant and anoxic, which damages trees.

The commission wants to re-engineer the WMA's water control structures and levees to allow water to flow continuously across the area. The commission's biologists say this will preserve existing trees and ensure the health of future trees.

Until that occurs, the commission has reduced the amount of water storage at Dave Donaldson WMA in the winter, reducing the amount of inundated acreage where waterfowlers can hunt. Duck hunters don't like that, and they also don't like reduced hunting acreage during the five or so years it will take to complete the renovation.

The commission has spent a lot of time and effort over the last two years explaining its intentions. We have discussed it a lot in this space, so there's no point in rehashing it. Game and Fish properties are old, and their structures and equipment don't support modern water management. Now with solid data to support its recommendations, the commission has the will to execute them. The renovations are going to happen, and sooner than later.

Reinforced by the nature of the comments at the Pocahontas meeting, our take is that hunters acknowledge the truth of what the AGFC is telling them. Forest health has passed its tipping point, and it is visible to anyone that pays attention.

Hunters see it and believe it, but they don't like the fact that the bill is past due and that today's hunters will pay the greatest price. They wish the AGFC could delay action for another decade or so until they age out of the hunting population, as did the previous generation of hunters. But we all realize that in another decade, that generation of hunters won't want to pay the toll either.

That was the tone of the questions that hunters asked at Pocahontas. Isn't there another way? How can you assure us that the way you're selling us is the right way? Do you have to do it now?

Among that group are the negotiators. Their tactic is deflection. A longtime Game and Fish critic who is still sore over the commission banning commercial duck hunting guides on WMAs tried to persuade us that a few beaver dams are backing water over the whole 5,000-plus acres of the green tree reservoir and killing all the trees.

Uh, no.

As always, there was the guy that rebutted the importance of red oaks to ducks by saying that nobody he knows has ever found an acorn in a duck's crop. My uncles that taught me to hunt in Bayou Meto in the 1970s said the same thing.

Austin Booth, the AGFC's director, explained that ducks fly into the woods in the morning after roosting in rice fields all night. Hunters kill them in the mornings before they've had time to start eating acorns

Two attendees corrected Booth, saying, "They're not roosting in rice fields, they're feeding!"

Precisely. I had to wonder if Booth erred intentionally.

The most dishonest display came from an attendee that asked people who support the renovation to raise their hands. About a dozen positioned their hands for elevation but kept them in abeyance amid murmuring among their neighbors. It was a bully move intended to demonstrate there is no support for the proposals.

After the meeting, hunters expressed support privately to commissioners and staff.

Finally, a state representative asked Booth if, after renovations are complete, he will be able to guarantee that the WMA will hold huntable water for a full 60-day duck season.

Booth slowly shook his head and said no. If the question was intended to elicit an emotional response from Booth or the crowd, it didn't.

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