There was once a farm kid who was so consumed by duck hunting that the mysteries of waterfowl dominated his education, his professional career, his entire life.
Mickey Heitmeyer is a waterfowl biologist, a farmer, a business owner, an entrepreneur — and perhaps most importantly, a duck hunter living in southeast Missouri.
So what does a biologist/farmer that lives in Missouri have to do with Arkansas?
Heitmeyer is one of North America’s leading waterfowl and wetland biologists and is widely acknowledged as an expert in wintering waterfowl ecology and the management of bottomland hardwoods — in other words, the duck woods.
Simply put, he may know more about mallards in winter than any person alive. And, he loves to hunt them as much as anyone.
Over the past three decades Heitmeyer has helped build the foundation for waterfowl and wetland conservation in Arkansas arguably as much any person.
He has accomplished this through his studies of waterfowl ecology and bottomland hardwood wetlands; his recommendations to improve management strategies for greentree reservoirs (GTRs), moist-soil units and post-harvest rice fields; his management advice for habitats and hunting on private clubs; and his involvement with key litigation and public policy to protect Arkansas’ woods and waters.
Heitmeyer is the owner and CEO of Greenbrier Wetland Services, a small consulting firm dedicated to helping state and federal agencies and private landowners protect, restore and manage important ecosystems — especially waterfowl habitat. He also owns and farms 900 acres of prime duck habitat in Missouri; including Greenbrier Farms, Greenbrier Flats and the Cato Slough Hunting Club.
From humble roots in a small rural farm community in north Missouri, Heitmeyer was captivated by ducks, farms and conservation at an early age. His father was a dirt contractor and a farmer. “My father always said that a good farm should produce crops and wildlife at the same time,” Heitmeyer said. “In retrospect, Dad had a great life. He worked like crazy farming and building ponds, waterways, terraces, pushing brush, etcetera from April to October, and then he hunted quail, ducks, geese and rabbits from November through January.
“In February and March he worked on equipment. And, when it rained, we fished. With no apologies, my reason and passion for conservation is grounded in my early exposure to, and love for, hunting and fishing. I wish more of the upcoming generation of wildlife biologists had this farming and hunting foundation.”
Heitmeyer began his career as a seasonal employee for the Missouri Department of Conservation and earned a B.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Missouri and a M.S. from Oklahoma State University. All of the degrees were in wildlife ecology — and, in the opinion of many, his doctorate work effectively changed the face of waterfowl management in North America.
His Ph.D. research, conducted in the swamps of southeast Missouri, focused on the wintering ecology of mallards. This research, coupled with his prior work in Oklahoma, opened the scientific doors of understanding about how ducks make a living in winter, and demonstrated the cross-seasonal linkage between winter/migration habitats and duck population dynamics.
“Up until that time waterfowl biologists were consumed with the notion that the only thing that really mattered for ducks — and their management — was the prairie breeding grounds,” Heitmeyer said.
In an influential 1981 scientific paper based on his research, Heitmeyer and coauthor Dr. Leigh Fredrickson demonstrated that recruitment and populations of North American mallards were significantly controlled by conditions in bottomland hardwood wetlands during winter in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (MAV), especially those in Arkansas.
The results identified how both northern prairie and MAV wetland conditions worked in concert to shape the evolution and population of ducks. In other words, Arkansas habitat is essential. Long-suspected by southern duck biologists, the proof was now there.
Subsequent studies of mallards and then companion analyses on pintails in California provided more insight. Winter habitat was important — and was most significant in controlling duck populations when winters were dry and the ducks were more concentrated (for example, the ducks had fewer areas and resources to use), the population was larger (more mouths to feed), and when prairie breeding areas actually were good (winter then becomes the weak link in the annual cycle).
Other work by Heitmeyer demonstrated that habitat conditions in January and February were especially important, and a 2006 paper proved that late winter floods in MAV rivers — especially on the White, Cache, and Black rivers — enabled birds to rapidly gain weight and increase their breeding success the next spring, even if early winter habitats were poor.
Consequently, the late winter floods of 2012, coupled with the many excellent state, federal and Ducks Unlimited habitat projects in the state, helped keep mallard populations near record levels in 2013. And, with high populations expected again this year, habitat conditions and conservation efforts in Arkansas will be especially important this winter.
These research results caused waterfowl biologists to finally acknowledge the critical importance of winter and migration habitats, which significantly increased the priority of wetland conservation programs in these states. Clearly, the key to North American duck management was attention and conservation action in all habitats across the continent, not just the prairies.
This understanding ultimately led to the formal adoption of winter/migration habitat conservation programs in the North American Waterfowl Management Plan — and with that came funding and recognition for Arkansas, beginning in the 1980s.
After completing his Ph.D., Heitmeyer moved to the University of California-Davis to study wintering ducks in the Central Valley of California. In a desire to “connect my interests in science and real world applied conservation,” he left UC-Davis in 1988 to lead research and conservation programs for the California Waterfowl Association. Then a larger calling beckoned.
In 1990, Heitmeyer became the Director of the 10-state Western Region of Ducks Unlimited and soon rose to become DU’s national group manager of conservation programs and the director of The Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research. In 1994, he led the development and acceptance of the first “Continental Conservation Plan” for DU. That plan, which has been subjected to adaptive revisions, still guides DU’s work across North America.
In 1998 Heitmeyer returned to his beloved southeast Missouri as research associate with the Gaylord Memorial Laboratory, part of the University of Missouri. Back home, Heitmeyer continued to work on the understanding of bottomland hardwood wetlands, GTRs, moist-soil impoundments, wetland design and development, and landscape-scale ecosystem restoration.
In 2007, Heitmeyer said, “the desire for less bureaucracy and more farm/duck time called — loudly.”
As a result, he formed Greenbrier Wetland Services, a private conservation consulting company that, since inception, has worked on restoration/management projects in 26 states. He also returned to a more “sane life” of managing a production farm, a semi-commercial hunting club, recreational developments and select investments.
“I like spending time on a tractor, despite my old junk and the regular replacement of hydraulic hoses and immovable rusted lug nuts,” Heitmeyer said. “It is good for the soul.”
With the foundation of early mallard and bottomland hardwood studies, Heitmeyer has been asked to conduct many studies in Arkansas that ultimately have affected ducks, habitats and hunters in the state.
His studies on ecosystem restoration and management molded conservation programs in the Grand Prairie region, the Bayou Meto Basin, the Cache River Basin and most recently the White River National Wildlife Refuge. His studies also formed the basis for the new 2004 management plan to protect the premier Bayou Meto WMA and in 2006 he established habitat damage and remediation strategies for the Dave Donaldson WMA.
George Dunklin, past Arkansas Game and Fish Commission chariman and now president of Ducks Unlimited, Inc. recounted the importance of the Bayou Meto Plan.
“In 2002 the Corps of Engineers engaged Mickey Heitmeyer and his colleagues at the Gaylord Memorial Laboratory to make a study and develop a Wetland Management Plan for the Bayou Meto Wildlife Area,” Dunklin said. “Based on his experience and research they could not have picked a better person for the job. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission adopted the plan in 2004. Today, the plan guides the management of the precious area based on science, rather than ‘gut feel.’ I have no doubt that future generations of Arkansas waterfowl hunters will join me in thanking Heitmeyer for his farsighted advice.”
The Dave Donaldson work was especially critical in providing a framework for a federal lawsuit that AGFC filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), whereby unauthorized water releases from Clearwater Reservoir on the Black River in Missouri ultimately killed thousands of acres of duck woods on the WMA in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In addition to conducting the key baseline studies on the WMA, Heitmeyer was a key expert witness in the trial that was successful in a first federal court decision in 2010, and ultimately via an appeals court reversal, that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.
In a rare, unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of AGFC that indeed the USACE releases were considered a “taking” of Arkansas state property — the duck trees. The magnitude of this high court decision is precedent setting and an important and impressive “win” for Arkansas ducks and hunters.
Julie Greathouse, of Perkins, with the Trotter Law Firm in Little Rock, and the AGFC’s Jim Goodhart were the lead attorneys on the case.
“Mickey’s study and support were crucial at every stage of this case,” said Greathouse, who, beginning with the Dave Donaldson case, has worked with Heitmeyer for close to a decade. “In addition to being a highly competent professional, Mickey is simply a great guy. I consider it my distinct pleasure to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from him and wish him continued success in his distinguished career.”
Heitmeyer is especially proud of his work with many private duck clubs in Arkansas. He has arguably visited, developed management plans for, and hunted more GTRs than any other person in the world. He has consulted for Arkansas clubs Cornerstone Farms/Stickpond, Screaming Wings/Big Brushy, Greenbriar, Bald Cypress, Five Forks, Hempstead County, Po-Boy, Yellow Creek and Green Oaks.
Witt Stephens, who owns Screaming Wings, is among the many landowners who have benefitted from Heitmeyer’s practical advice and hunting knowledge.
“Mickey’s knowledge of the complex processes that drive the health of a duck woods is incredible,” Stephens said. “He’s done the research, so he knows what’s going on. Even more remarkable is his ability to explain to private landowners, ‘Here’s what’s happening and why.’ He starts with the building blocks and provides a long-term master plan. He makes it so easy for us to not only manage our property, but appreciate it more, as well.”
Heitmeyer’s closest friends refer to him as the “duck doctor” and know that no conversation can occur without at least some discussion of ducks.
“The power of ducks is amazing,” Heitmeyer said. “The influence that ducks have had on me and my fellow conservationists/duck hunters is beyond explanation. The ducks cause us to realize our place in the world, the insignificance of man — yet the turmoil of our presence, the wonder of nature, and the blessing to know and hunt the birds. Let us not take this lightly.”
In the next two years Heitmeyer intends to wind down government contracting work and then spend his “work time” at the farm, helping duck clubs and working on a few special projects. Most importantly, he intends to explore wild places with his life partner Karen and shoot ducks with his buddy Otis, a black Lab.
Indeed, whether biologist, farmer, business owner, or — most importantly — duck hunter, Heitmeyer has been and continues to be a friend of Arkansas ducks and hunters.
Jeff Churan is a waterfowl conservationist, past member of the Missouri Conservation Commission and former Chairman of DU’s Conservation Programs Committee. He lives in Chillicothe, Mo., and belongs to Waterhen Lodge duck club in Manitoba, owns “The Bottoms” duck camp in the famed “Golden Triangle” area of north-central Missouri and, with his son Greg, owns a “duck shack” on East Lake off the White River, where he and his family frequent Arkansas’ flooded bottoms in pursuit of wintering mallards.