After a century of helping protect and promote wildlife and wildlife habitat in Arkansas, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is going strong and continuing to carry out its mission.
Joe Mosby, author of the book “A Century of Conservation,” written to commemorate the anniversary, made it his goal to explain the AGFC’s long-time, behind-the-scenes efforts to make hunting, fishing and wildlife habitats what they are in the state.
“One thing that came to mind while working on this book is how most people in Arkansas don’t realize what all took place in our state over the last 100 years and what has gone into providing these fish and wildlife for the public,” Mosby said. “They think deer just happen, that they’ve always been here and always will be. But when I was a kid in southeast Arkansas, there weren’t any deer. They’d been hunted to near extinction.”
Mosby described a turn-of-the century, pre-statehood paradise that became endangered, sparking early efforts that resulted in the formation of what became the AGFC.
“Settlers pretty well lived off the land,” Mosby said. “If they wanted meat for the table they’d go out with a gun and shoot something or find a tree full of passenger pigeons — a species driven to extinction from unchecked harvesting — and kill them with a stick. When folks used up the resources in one area they moved on to somewhere else.
“Realizing we couldn’t go on like that forever, the conservation movement began in the first part of the last century. In 1918, federal law regulating migratory fowl harvests passed with the Bird Treaty Act.”
Mosby said it took some time for such ideas to spread to all state, and efforts to form a game and fish commission suffered a few false starts within the Arkansas Legislature.
“Our state legislature rejected the idea to establish the Game and Fish in 1911 and again in 1913,” Mosby said. “The main issue was too many legislators didn’t feel the state had any business telling folks they couldn’t go out and shoot or catch what they wanted when they wanted. The third time was a charm when Bill 124 passed in 1915, organizing the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
“It took some time to develop. They initially didn’t even have a central location until someone cleaned out a closet in the Capitol basement that became the first office. There were only eight wardens for the whole state who were paid $80 per month and had to provide their own horses.”
AGFC Director Mike Knoedl said the passion for duck hunting — hunting and fishing in general — and wildlife conservation in the state is rivaled by perhaps just one other Arkansas institution, and the AGFC has been proud to be in the forefront the past 100 years.
“Before 1935, we had at least one murder and a number of fistfights on the Capitol floor over setting the deer season,” he said. “Nothing besides the Razorbacks incites more passion among Arkansans than hunting and fishing. We hope to steer the future of Arkansas wildlife and habitat in a direction that will continue to provide fine sporting opportunities for our citizens well into the next century and beyond.”
And Waterfowl hunters have not been ignored during the century of growth
While many Arkansas sportsmen focus only on hunting and fishing, all programs benefit from the AGFC’s efforts as it has administered funds from the conservation tax begun in 1997.
“That has allowed new programs to come on board, buy more management area lands and increase the number of people in the field, including biologists and wildlife officers,” Mosby said. “We still don’t do everything we’d like but we’re trying. The reason for this centennial celebration is to try and inform the public what all has gone into making Arkansas a hunter and fisher’s recreation destination.”
One important program afforded by the conservation tax is the annual aerial duck survey. Greenhead was invited to fly along with pilot Rocky Thornburg and AGFC waterfowl biologist Jason (Buck) Jackson in early January for the “Mid-winter Survey.”
Landing midday in the 1964 Cessna 210D at Stuttgart airport to pick up Jackson, it became immediately obvious why the area is known as a duck-hunting destination.
License plates from New York, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Alabama, Ohio and Georgia dotted the parking lot. In addition, there were dozens of private single and twin-engine aircraft parked on the apron that had carried waterfowlers from all over the country.
“And this is a slow day,” said municipal airport manager Carl Humphrey.
Statewide Waterfowl Program Coordinator Luke Naylor said the annual program allows the AGFC to “sample and predict with a large level of dependability what numbers of ducks are present, gives us a good degree of confidence in our methods and is repeatable over time.”
The survey provides long-term insight into how duck populations fluctuate over time because of changing weather and habitat conditions.
With laptop at the ready and voice-activated microphone in hand, Jackson looked out the right side of the aircraft between pre-measured, marked blue lines placed on the window glass and wing-strut that represent exactly 250-meter wide areas when flying at a 500-foot altitude. Speaking into his voice-file, Jackson recited his observations including the type of species and habitat — “Four mallards in reservoir.”
Each completed survey is done over a three day period, requiring approximately 30 total hours, two pilots, three AGFC personnel — one for the Arkansas River Valley, another for the southwest quadrant and one [Jackson] in the Delta — and covers around 3,000 linear miles.
“We typically survey three times a year, once before the season, again the second week of December and finally in early January,” Jackson aid. “We cover from the bootheel of Missouri to the Louisiana line. We’ll continue to do this as long as we have the money.”
Worth The Trip
The day’s excursion flew over Carlisle, Stuttgart, Altheimer, Wabbaseka, Jacksonville, Humphrey, Lonoke, Scott and within sight of the Little Rock skyline.
As simple as it may seem, counting wildfowl from a lightweight, single-engine aircraft isn’t always a picnic. Strong winds at low-altitude, long hours in the seat and flocks of birds occupying the same airspace can make for some bumpy rides, tricky aerial maneuvering and hairy moments on the wing.
But there’s little to compare with observing waterfowl and their habitat from a duck’s eye view. One remarkable sight is the 20,000 acres of catfish ponds in Lonoke County and it certainly drives home how obvious “taco stand” blinds stand out in the middle of a flooded field.
Naylor’s tabulations of the final 2014-15 season survey results came to 900,000 mallards and just over two million total ducks of all species present in the state.
Asked his thoughts on waterfowl health in Arkansas, Naylor said, “The state of ducks is pretty good. People are passionate about duck hunting here. Our hunter numbers are up again to the point of breaking another record. … The survey shows we have good breeding populations.”
With good science and management practices and up-to-date survey methods, Arkansas Game and Fish is, as always, attempting to keep up with changing times and to keep waterfowl a part of the commission’s big picture for another century.
“We’re set up for the next 15 years into the future to judge how populations change in relationship to the environment,” Naylor said. “We hope to keep ahead of the curve so that in another 100 years people will still be talking about duck hunting in Arkansas.”