In May of 2021, I was afforded the opportunity to take a tour of the famed George H. Dunklin Jr. Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area (WMA). Why in the world would someone want to go wandering around “The Scatters” in the early Arkansas summer you may ask? Simply put, the greatest public, green-timber, duck-hunting venue on the planet is in some serious danger from a habitat perspective and a call to action has been initiated.
Bayou Meto WMA is far too expansive to consistently, naturally flood on its own, hence the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) creating the impoundments and implementing water control structures attempting to make adequate water available for public ground waterfowlers. Traditionally, the water would be turned loose in mid-October to ensure those early arriving ducks would find suitable habitat and hunters would have a place to hunt. That early October flooding seemed to work just fine until those in the know took notice of the less water tolerant, small acorn-producing Red Oaks toppling over and dying off.
To the amateur eye, there are plenty of healthy oaks dotting the landscape in the public shooting grounds. But ducks don’t like just any old oak tree, you see. The Overcup Oak and other trees from the White Oak family are doing quite well, as this particular species can handle water adequately, but it produces an acorn far too big for a mallard to consume.
Nuttalls and Red Oaks, which include Willow or Pin Oaks, produce those thimble-size acorns ducks just can’t get enough of when they are fueling up on carbs. Unfortunately, Bayou Meto WMA is littered with Red Oaks that are struggling mightily due to high spring waters covering their bases for too long.
On our tour, the AGFC staff pointed out several “leaners” and noted many wouldn’t see the end of summer.
These “leaners” are just that, trees that have lost their ability to stand tall and proud due to a poorly performing root base in soft, damp sludge. A moderate to good wind can topple these trees without much resistance, roots and all. Dead limbs abound on these failing trees. As many as 75% of the Red Oaks in Bayou Meto WMA are in a critical stage where they could fall over in the next five years.
That’s a really, really scary number.
To have a shot at saving Bayou Meto WMA’s valuable Red Oaks, significant changes need to be made to most, if not all of the water control structures. We spent time at the Upper Vallier structure along Little Bayou Meto with AGFC Wetlands Biologist Jason “Buck” Jackson, pinpointing the volume of water Bayou Meto is having to handle from its nearly 75,000-acre watershed and from flaws with current structures.
The laundry list is too long to document in detail here but trust me, they need restructuring so the water can come, go and be held more naturally than today.
Springtime flooding is doing significant damage to these trees, more so than the flooding for ducks in the late fall. It’s enough to the point that the AGFC has brought in a highly respected senior ecologist, Tom Foti, to help guide AGFC’s team through the recovery process. Foti and his crew are creating zones within the WMA to mark, track and evaluate every single tree. They’ve also used light detecting and ranging technology to identify elevations in the WMA more suitable for Red Oak growth and regeneration.
But is it too late? If you’ve seen or heard about the damage at Henry Gray Hurricane Lake WMA near Bald Knob, you are fully aware how dire the situation is there. Our group was actually supposed to tour Hurricane, but it was under 8 feet of water. In May. Prime growing time for trees.
Of course all these fixes require money. I believe the figure I heard was around $60 million to solve all the problems across 50,000 acres of Greentree reservoirs (GTRs) in Arkansas. Funds are available in the short term to put in new structures at various GTRs in the state and hopefully more dollars are coming our way.
Ducks Unlimited has stepped up to play a role in salvaging what has become an emergency for the future of Arkansas duck hunting. There’s not a thing wrong with letting your state and federal legislators know Arkansas needs help.
Even if you don’t hunt Bayou Meto or other WMAs, now is not the time to be short-sighted about their impact on Arkansas duck hunting. Countless private clubs are affected by Bayou Meto’s success or potential failure if things don’t happen fast.
Get educated, get informed and get involved. Our duck hunting heritage and future depends on you coming to the rescue.