Late on the morning of July 19, Hays Sullivan, 75, was ready to gear up to defend the tradition of permanent blinds at Big Lake, and just as he often does when he duck hunts, he brought with him his grandson, Thomas Owens, 16.
Two generations were prepared to defend what they saw as right, before a Legislative Oversight Committee set to question Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officials and hear from hunters in the audience.
In the spring, the commission officials proposed eliminating the practice of using permanent blinds at the Big Lake and St. Francis Sunken Lands wildlife management areas.
Also under consideration is a prohibition on the use of overnight decoys and staking out holes in the same areas and at Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area.
“I can’t fathom it, and why they want to do this other than they have had some complaints from different people,” Sullivan said. “Who, I don’t know. I’ve tried to stay out of it but I’m about to get deep in the middle of it. I’m going to put my waders on this time.”
In 1930, Sullivan’s father and grandfather started duck hunting at Big Lake. In 1948, he joined them and about 10 years ago he brought Owens. That tradition has included the use of a permanent blind. Still, he recognizes the land underneath his blind isn’t his.
“It is public land. It always has been and always will be public land,” he said. “I’ve had nobody in the 60-plus years I’ve been hunting over there that have ever been mistreated about coming and hunting with somebody, whether they are from Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia or wherever. I’ve had all kinds of folks come hunt with me every year. I just invite them to come in.”
That land was purchased and made public with a combination of federal and state money.
Several hunters have said its purchase took place with the understanding by the sellers they still would be able to hunt on it and maintain permanent blinds.
Although Sullivan did not get up to speak to the committee July 19, he did come with copies of documents including affidavits from former commissioners and a blank duck blind permit form he said once was used by the AGFC. Sullivan himself served on the Game and Fish Commission from 1977-84.
A copy of an affidavit from another commissioner who served before Sullivan refers to a “gentleman’s agreement” between the AGFC and hunters at Big Lake. It states that when Big Lake was created in the early 1950s they would remove houseboats and permanent cabins in exchange for being allowed to use permanent blinds.
The AGFC’s problem is handshake deals are by definition undocumented, even if they did guide operations.
Ricky Chastain, AGFC deputy director, said the deeds and titles to the land as well as other official records don’t contain those gentlemen’s agreements.
Of Arkansas’ more than 40 WMAs where waterfowl hunting takes place, only Big Lake and St. Francis allow for permanent blinds.
“The blinds aren’t the problem with the [U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service]. It’s the behaviors that are associated with those blinds,” Chastain said. “[Things like] running folks off, claiming some of the slides and blinds as their own. You have permission from them to use those blinds. You also get the tree cutting and herbicide applications to try to keep holes open. … It demonstrates we are not in control of the things that go on in that management area, and that it is not truly open to public access if folks are being denied an equal opportunity to hunt a certain location.”
Because federal money was used for the original purchase of Big Lake and St. Francis, the FWS has an interest in seeing equal access maintained. AGFC Executive Director Loren Hitchcock said the FWS ultimately could demand the state pay back the federal funds used for the purchases or cut off some funding if it is convinced the commission is not acting more effectively to control the WMAs.
The AGFC said there were two documented incidents of hunter harassment at Black River in 2011-12, two at Big Lake and three at St. Francis. In 2007-12, there were six at Black River, four at Big Lake and three at St. Francis. The commission reports there are another three to five informal complaints each year. Most of those incidents are related to hunters trying to stake a claim to an area or blind to hunt.
Several legislators such as State Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, noted that in some years no harassment incidents were recorded. To Thompson and others on the panel, the size of the problem seems small, and that may be the crux of the conflict.
T.L. Lauerman of Mountain Home said he has hunted in WMAs throughout the state. He thinks the permanent blinds and the use of decoys actually have helped minimize the problem of friction between hunters for those choice spots.
“We leave our decoys out and have our blinds,” Lauerman said. “People know where they’re going. They’ve gone out preseason and laid it out. If someone gets in there before them, then they just go to another spot in the area. At boat launch time, at 6 a.m., people are launching their boats, and it’s all very civil. It works.”
Other WMAs have used draw systems — effectively a lottery for the use of blinds and spots, and those lead to free-for-alls from his experience. Everyone at the same time tries to get in the water or stake out a place to hunt, Lauerman said.
At one Arkansas WMA that does not allow permanent blinds, hunters were rotating in shifts to maintain a 24-hour presence for an entire week at one hole, Lauerman said.
At the July 19 oversight hearing, Chastain showed photos of blinds littered with trash, trees chopped down to clear an area or make it easier to get to, signs posted to designate a spot as “private” and other abuses.
Most comments — in a series of spring meetings and conference calls — were in opposition to the rules changes at Big Lake, St. Francis and Black River.
However, a regular comment process and special hunter survey showed more than 73 percent opposed the use of permanent blinds, 63 percent in northeast Arkansas.
“We have gotten communications from a number of people for the ban on private blinds,” Commissioner Emon Mahony said. “They have been run off, they have been intimidated, and they have been threatened. They don’t want to go public. They say, ‘I’m not going to come out and say this.’ They’re not trying to get in a fight with their neighbors over it, but they feel strongly that they’re wrong.”
Despite reservations, Mahony joined with fellow commissioners Aug. 16 to unanimously approve several measures in the “2012-2013 Late Migratory Bird Regulations,” including the removal of the exceptions to the rules for blinds, overnight decoys and holes.
Duck hunters will have until Oct. 15 to remove the blinds at Big Lake and St. Francis. Chastain said they need to work through local AGFC officials and the permitting system first. Between Oct. 15 and the start of duck hunting season Nov. 17, commission officials will remove what remains of the about 200 usable blinds in the two areas.
The AGFC decision could mark the end of the tradition of permanent blinds in the two WMAs. It also may be the end of only one round of fighting over the issue and the beginning of another. As with a hunter in a blind, only waiting and watching will reveal the outcome.