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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Hunting pressure is reconfiguring duck behavior

by Bryan Hendricks | December 27, 2020 at 2:51 a.m.

From a conservation standpoint, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's decision to limit non-resident duck hunting on state-owned wildlife management areas was prescient.

In 2018, the commission passed regulations that limit non-residents to only 30 days of hunting on wildlife management areas, and only during specific 10-day blocks within each of the three segments of the 60-day Arkansas duck season. They must also buy five-day non-resident WMA duck hunting permits, which cost $30.50. To hunt all 30 days, non-residents must spend $457.50 on the permits alone. That does not include the cost of a non-resident hunting license and non-resident Arkansas duck stamp.

Let's concentrate on the conservation value of limiting non-resident duck hunting on WMAs.

On Dec. 18, Outdoor Life published an article by Alex Robinson and Joe Genzel titled, "Our Obsession with Greenheads Is Ruining Duck Hunting as We Know It." Particularly interesting were the assertions about how hunting pressure affects mallard age dynamics and mallard behavior relative to the way they use heavily hunted areas. Public areas are, of course, the most heavily hunted.

The article's most important point is that excessive hunting pressure has a quantifiable detrimental effect on hunting. There are people that hunt all 60 days on wildlife management areas. When they have a good hunt, they take a lot of other people until they shoot the place out. Facebook is full of fresh photos showing six to eight happy hunters standing in knee-deep water beside a boat draped with full limits of mallards.

When they're not hunting, they're crashing boats powered by surface drive motors through otherwise inaccessible areas that once served as refuges where ducks went to escape hunting pressure. They leave and don't come back.

Evidence of this surfaced in 2019 on the Game and Fish Commission's weekly waterfowl report, which is published every Thursday in the Outdoors section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Observers noted weekly that large concentrations of mallards are more frequently seen in unhunted fields often beside state highways and county roads. Many of those fields were dry.

In 2018, I wrote that the number of mallards killed annually in Saskatchewan and Manitoba is growing and would eventually become a number that matters. It already matters cumulatively when you factor it into the number of mallards killed in all of the other states north of Arkansas in the Mississippi Flyway. Mallards especially are hunted hard from late summer until mid-winter. The youngest, most inexperienced ducks are culled early. The oldest, most experienced, and wariest ducks eventually reach Arkansas. By then they've seen it all, and they have learned how to avoid hunters.

Until the early 2000s, ducks were lightly hunted, and Arkansas received the bulk of the migration. Now we get the remainder of a migration that has run a veritable gauntlet that trickles into and spreads across the state.

Public land hunters especially complain about the lack of ducks in the state. Private hunting clubs like Bull Sprig, Greenbrier and myriad smaller ones enjoy superb hunting all season long. They only hunt early in the early mornings, and they let their woods rest all day so that ducks feel comfortable and stay. And when someone enjoys a good shoot, they don't bring in a wagon train full of their buddies.

The late Joe Morgan, former member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, preached this message incessantly, and he led the campaign to enact the non-resident hunting regulations package for WMAs. Morgan usually cited the poor quality of the WMA duck hunting experience. As a lifelong car salesman, he understood that you sell a product on its value to people, not on its value to the resource.

Privately, Morgan lamented the deleterious effect of excessive hunting on the value of WMAs as duck habitat. He understood that for WMAs to have value to hunters, we had to maximize their value as duck habitat. The only way to reduce pressure was to reduce the number of days a large segment of the hunting population could legally pressure ducks. It isn't much of a reduction, really, but it's a little, and every little bit helps.

For the 2021-24 duck seasons, Nebraska and South Dakota will offer ducks hunters an optional "Three Splash" rule that allows them to harvest three ducks of any species and sex. Its intent is to recruit new hunters, but it will also reduce duck harvest and by extension, hunting pressure. I predict that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will adopt a three-splash rule before the 2030 season.

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