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After writing last week about efforts to restore the bobwhite quail populations in Arkansas, this week I turn my attention to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, which is celebrating its centennial this year. The Commission has done a quite remarkable job in stabilizing wildlife populations--and in some cases all too well. And, while too much of the Commission's emphasis is still on hunting and fishing to suit me, taken as a whole the AGFC has accomplished a great deal over the past 100 years--especially considering its limited resources.

If history teaches us anything, it must be that Arkansans are very good at shooting ourselves in the feet. One of the most obvious examples of this is our uncontrolled exploitation of the environment--often without any concern for the longer term. Part of this was due to the fact that Arkansas was blessed with substantial natural resources, everything from pearls to petroleum, and this abundance seemed inexhaustible.

The arrival of the 20th Century was accompanied by a growing realization that wildlife numbers were plummeting. For example, in 1900 Arkansas market hunters were shipping 25,000 ducks daily to eastern markets. Deer numbers declined dramatically, with only about 2,000 left by 1919.

As we celebrate the centennial of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission this year, it is difficult to grasp how much opposition greeted the new agency when it was created in March 1915. For generations, Arkansans--especially poor farmers--considered hunting, fishing, and trapping to be a "right" as well as a means of boosting income and filling larders.

Many hunters resented having to buy a license, and game wardens were widely criticized for enforcing new AGFC bag limits, restricted hunting seasons, and commercial fishing moratoriums. All the grumbling caused the 1919 legislature to limit the number of game wardens to eight. Legislators did not hesitate to pass laws in opposition to AGFC rules. In 1923 the legislature adopted 32 laws relating to wildlife, including one which allowed seines and nets to catch fish "in certain streams and bayous" of Chicot County.

Through the persistent efforts of early AGFC commissioners such as Guy Amsler of Little Rock, the commission was able to gradually win public acceptance if not outright cooperation.

Restoring depleted wildlife populations has always been an emphasis, with an initial concentration on halting the decimation caused by market fishermen. In addition to requiring permits, market fishermen faced bag limits. Illegal fish traps were destroyed by the hundreds. And a valiant effort was made to build hatcheries to restock the waterways, including a large one near Centerton in Benton County.

The largest jewel in the AGFC crown was its incredibly successful deer recovery program. After much cajoling, the 1917 legislature imposed a moratorium on hunting does until 1922, but it refused to outlaw hunting with dogs. Deer for restocking were incredibly difficult to locate, and sources were as far away as Minnesota and North Carolina. The great flood of 1927 killed many deer, and in 1930 a statewide count found only 500 animals, but numbers gradually grew. By 1946 the estimated deer population rose to 31,500, with only Mississippi County reporting no deer.

Two other successful restocking programs involved black bears and alligators. While small populations of both bears and alligators persisted in remote areas, their numbers were tiny. Beginning in 1959, the AGFC released 256 bears from Minnesota and Canada. The bear population is now said to be about 5,000 animals, large enough to support a limited hunting season.

Alligator restocking began in 1972, with 2,841 alligators being relocated from Louisiana. About 80 percent of the alligators were released on private land, usually at the request of farmers who were having problems with beavers. (AGFC had earlier restocked beavers, with a total of 77 being released by 1951.) During the 2013 season, 44 alligators were legally killed in Arkansas.

While restocking played an important role in replenishing wildlife in Arkansas, the creation of a network of federal and state game refuges starting in 1926 was probably more crucial. The oldest state game preserve is the Roc Roe State Game Refuge in Monroe County.

Often the AGFC found itself battling legislators as well as poachers. Arkansas conservationists, especially the members of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, grew weary of legislative interference, and in 1944 an amendment to the state constitution gave the AGFC independence from legislative and gubernatorial oversight.

The Commission was hamstrung from the beginning since it was expected to pay its own way through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and collecting fines. This restrictive funding remained until 1996 when voters approved Arkansas Constitutional Amendment 75, which provided for a one-eighth of a percent statewide sales tax with AGFC sharing the income with the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission.

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Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

Editorial on 06/14/2015

Print Headline: Protectors of our wildlife

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