When duck seasons in Arkansas are less productive than hoped, human nature seeks a reason.
It’s a long-standing practice to blame habitat improvements in other states that allegedly cause ducks to stop for food and rest instead of flocking into Arkansas. Luke Naylor, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission chief of wildlife management, has heard theories that range from “heated ponds, whatever those are,” to corn being dumped from helicopters somewhere in Missouri.
“We hear that — somewhere else being somewhat better and having more ducks,” Naylor said. “That’s a timeless discussion for duck hunters and duck managers.”
The AGFC manages more than 50,000 acres of greentree reservoirs in more than a dozen wildlife management areas (WMAs), while private landowners manage their own habitats. Regardless of management, it’s never a dead lock to expect a certain number of ducks in a certain place at a certain time of year.
“Ducks and bird behavior and the habitat that they use is constantly changing,” Naylor said. “So to expect absolute consistency with an animal that migrates hundreds to thousands of miles a year to arrive in front of one potential hunting location and individual hunter — that’s a whole lot of stars that have to align for that to happen.”
Overall wetland loss and more aggressive agriculture in the form of fall tillage and early field drainage can reduce food availability and may be contributing to the perception that ducks just like it better elsewhere, Naylor said.
“That’s a relatively small area, total land mass,” Naylor said, “but you compare that to a broader land mass that has potentially equal or higher hunting pressure but reduced resources for ducks, [and] those things can add up to an individual hunter perceiving fewer ducks over their decoys and fewer ducks over harvests preceding.”
There actually is a decline in duck numbers, but it isn’t simply Arkansas’ problem. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report “Waterfowl Population Status, 2022” showed an estimated 12% decline in the spring of that year from the last, pre-COVID 19 survey of 2019, and mallard populations were down 23%.
However, pre-COVID numbers also showed a mallard harvest of 477,817 in Arkansas, higher than any other state and more than the whole Atlantic Flyway.
“Second place isn’t even close,” Naylor said.
While down from 2019, overall mallard numbers still showed 7.2 million on breeding grounds, only 700,000 fewer than the long-term average. Habitat management still needs to be addressed, Naylor said, but Arkansans can’t do anything about Missouri or North Dakota, they can only take care of their own backyard.
“If we give them something positive to stay in Arkansas, then they’re going to continue to come back,” Naylor said of the ducks.
Long-term flooding practices have reduced the health and food supplies of the greentree reservoirs while private landowners are seeing conservation reserve program agreements expiring and fewer incentives to enroll, meaning a reduction of resources available in the flooded rice fields estimated to provide 11% of all waterfowl food energy in the Mississippi Delta.
“By all accounts there’s fewer resources available to ducks across a broad scale in Arkansas now,” Naylor said.
On the public land front, the AGFC is taking on a long-term restoration strategy. In the 2021-2022 hunting season, the AGFC chose not to flood three popular greentree reservoirs, including Hurricane Lake WMA, where in December 2021 the agency installed $2.8 million worth of infrastructure improvements.
Ducks Unlimited put $1 million into the project and earned a grant for $2 million in continued work.
Naturally any reduction of public land access can upset hunters, and the AGFC has hosted town halls across the state to explain the science and long-term strategy.
“Very well meaning folks who just have a passion for their resources,” Naylor said. “Not people just walking around angry. These are good people asking good questions.”
On the private land front, the AGFC has developed the Arkansas Waterfowl Rice Incentive Conservation Enhancement (WRICE) program to incentivize landowners to keep waste rice available for migrating birds.
“We’ve been very clear that, hey, we’re working on the wildlife resource issue that’s been happening in the late fall and late winter,” Naylor said.
Fall tillage is increasingly popular with Arkansas rice growers, but it isn’t helpful for migrating ducks and other birds looking for food, as the tilling buries waste rice that would have otherwise been available to eat.
As an incentive to private landowners, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission developed the Arkansas Waterfowl Rice Incentive Conservation Enhancement (WRICE) program. Farmers can manage their fields as usual, but the program offers extra income for keeping fields flooded from roughly Nov. 1-Feb. 15 and skipping fall tillage to keep the waste rice available during hunting season.
The program has expanded to include an opportunity for landowners who have Wetland Reserve Easements on their property. This new portion of the program will pay landowners $50/acre to allow public access to their currently enrolled WRICE properties for hunting and wildlife-viewing throughout the year.
“We’re continuing to pursue whatever options we can to grow that program,” AGFC chief of wildlife management Luke Naylor said. “We’re working with several different partners on that. We’ve been out in front of really talking openly and starting and working on programs to achieve wintering water habitat on the landscape.”