About 12 minutes outside the duck hunting capital of the world — and right in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway — sits a hunting lodge that brings more to the table than a bird to roast for dinner.
At Five Oaks Ag Research and Education Center (FOAgREC), conservationists are taking initiatives to conserve Arkansas’ Delta region and its waterfowl inhabitants. Located in Humphrey, the center, powered in part by founder George Dunklin Jr. and paired with the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM) and the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, stands out as one of the only duck-focused agricultural research centers in the country.
The Five Oaks land has been in Dunklin’s family for decades, and his passion for the conservation of waterfowl and their winter home — sprouted from lessons given on hunting trips with his father — has helped Dunklin keep the environment well suited for its annual visitors. Before establishing FOAgREC, his love for keeping the environment in balance had led him to a seven-year appointment as commissioner of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and a two-year stint as president of Ducks Unlimited.
“It all started with Dad [George H. Dunklin Sr.] believing in what I was doing,” Dunklin said of his choice to lend his land to conservation research and start a new legacy for FOAgREC.
Food for Thought
In 2021, FOAgREC and UAM teamed up to create a research program for students with the goal of giving the next generation of land managers real-world experiences. The high profile program received nine applicants from all over the country in its inaugural year, and four were admitted.
For the 2022-2023 season, FOAgREC will welcome four new students. The center has also teamed up with its first partner, Sitka, which will sponsor the new class and fund bottomland hardwood research in public areas. The students and research team members will have access to Little Siberia hunting lodge as a place to stay for the duration of the program.
One of the primary goals of the research and education center is to help students apply in the field what they learned in their classes. With Doug Osborne, a professor at UAM and program director for FOAgREC, and Jody Pagan, chair of the FOAgREC research committee, at the helm, students work on preserving bottomland hardwood to keep ducks coming back to Arkansas each season.
The Arkansas stop on the Mississippi Flyway typically sees more mallards than anywhere else in North America. According to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s January Midwinter Survey, of the 961,247 migrating ducks in the Delta, 617,459 were mallards, about twice the mallard count of the December 2021 estimate. Because of this, Five Oaks’ research starts toward the bottom of the chain with the red oak acorn — a mallard’s favorite meal.
Because of increased flooding in the area, the general health of bottomland hardwoods is declining, Osborne said.
“The non-water tolerant species like red oaks, they produce a little tiny acorn that’s about the [size of the] end of your pinky,” Osborne said. “The ducks can eat that, but some of these water-tolerant species like the white oak, their acorns are twice as big and are too big for the ducks to eat. The change in the composition and health of the forest is really going to impact a lot of species that rely on those acorns.”
Changes in precipitation patterns and the addition of some human-made levees contributed to the devastating flooding the south has begun to experience in recent years.
Despite the significant increase in mallards from December 2021 to January 2022, the AGFC reported the midwinter estimate was the fourth lowest since their formal surveys started back in the 2009-10 season.
While some aspects of research require the students to start at the beginning of a problem, some areas merely need a tune-up.
FOAgREC is always in the process of improving the health of bottomland hardwood forests with their greentree reservoir renovation plans. Greentree reservoirs are areas in a bottomland hardwood forest equipped with levees and other water-controlling mechanisms.
GTRs are artificially flooded and drained to provide the best habitat for ducks. Students are working with 12 GTRs throughout 2,000 acres of Five Oaks property.
“The pulses of the flood do not work naturally, so you have to really put a lot of emphasis on how you manage the water, when you put it in and take it off, the health of the forest and long-term timber management strategies to make the forest more healthy,” Pagan said. “What we’re trying to do with U of A Monticello and FOAgREC is to study what’s the best management practices.”
Each research project FOAgREC works on is connected to the others. While researching how to improve the health of trees like the red oak, the team also works toward improving acorn production and increasing the survival and regeneration rates of red oaks and other species of trees beneficial to the duck population.
Fixed on the Future
The goal of Dunklin and everyone involved in FOAgREC is to not only keep their part of the forest healthy but to keep their research going for the next several generations.
“This research will be going on, I’m hoping, 100 years from now. We’re still learning what’s going on in these trees. We’ve got to take care of what we’ve got left. This is long-term,” Dunklin said. “There’s no quick fix; there’s no magic bullet. It’s going to be tricky — that’s no question. This is what I want to spend the fourth quarter of my life working on.”
While training new land managers and learning how to keep bottomland hardwood forests around for the long term are important to Dunklin, he said it’s crucial to ensure that the results of the teams’ research are kept public.
“We don’t compete against our neighbor. We complement each other, whether it’s our neighbors across the street or south Louisiana or Kansas, wherever,” Dunklin said. “We all work together because ducks don’t care.”