For the first time since February, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission met as a body, this time in Harrison, for Chairman Ken Reeves' final meeting.
Everyone attending wore masks. A Boone County EMT crew was present to screen everyone that entered the building. After covering commission meetings live-streamed on YouTube for three months, it was refreshing to cover the group in person. It is the only way a reporter can get a fair sense of what is happening among participants.
Interestingly, the main topic of conversation involved a new regulation allowing the use of certain bicycles equipped with electric motors on some wildlife management areas.
The new regulation identifies electronically assisted bicycles by three categories:
• A Class I electric bicycle is equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the operator is pedaling and that ceases to provide assistance when the electric bicycle reaches the speed of 20 mph.
• A Class II electric bicycle has a motor that can propel a bicycle without the use of pedals and cannot assist forward momentum when the bicycle attains a speed of 28 mph.
• A Class III electric bicycle has a motor that assists forward propulsion only when the rider is pedaling and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches 28 mph.
The new regulation allows the use of Class I bicycles only on WMAs and appears in Code 20.19 under "Vehicle Restrictions on WMAs." Unlike ATVs, dune buggies and amphibious vehicles, which may not be operated on AGFC-owned WMAs, Class I electric bicycles may be operated on established, maintained roads, and on trails and areas where regular bicycles are allowed. They may also be used off of established trails.
As regulations go, this one required unusual time and effort to develop. The commission heard comments from five people who opposed the regulation. Most said they believe that Class I electric bicycles on WMAs would disrupt and disturb wildlife, contravening the existential purpose of wildlife management areas.
One presenter, Chad Bowie, said that allowing Class I electric bicycles on WMAs would create conflicts among hunters and contribute to a "rat race" mentality that is pervasive among duck hunters on greentree reservoirs. Electric bicycles represent an opportunity to gain additional advantages over ambulatory hunters.
A consistent theme was that electric bicycles would be dangerous to horseback riders. Bicycles are quiet, and equestrians said they would likely spook horses and risk injuring riders. Commissioner Stan Jones sounded a sympathetic note to those concerns by saying, "Horses are afraid of only two things -- things they can hear and things they can't hear."
It's an example of how everything old is new again. In 1996, I wrote an article for the defunct Southern Outdoors magazine about using non-motorized mountain bikes for deer hunting. I presented them as an ethical, low-impact method for accessing remote hunting spots and for transporting game out of remote hunting spots. One advantages is that bicycles are quiet and do not disturb wildlife.
Bicycles are a niche form of transportation, and most hunters are middle-age people who haven't ridden bikes in decades. As one who hunts on WMAs a lot, I know that the primary method of hunting on WMAs is to drive to a parking area or park on the side of the road and walk no more than 250 yards into the woods. The ability to use an electric bicycle won't change the way people like to hunt. It is also unlikely that hunters who haven't ridden a bike since they were teenagers will rush to spend $1,500-$1,800 on a bike they are legally required to pedal anyway.
With or without motors, hunting bicycles are entirely a different type of machine than a high-performance trail bike. The small population of hunters who use bikes are an entirely different breed than extreme trail riders. Again, non-motorized bicycles have long been legal on WMAs, but trail riders do not commonly use WMAs. Those who do will attest that 20 mph in a tight, woodland environment is excessively fast. An overweight hunter on a bike along with a rifle and assorted hunting gear riding 20 mph on a woodland trail is going to wreck, guaranteed.
There are also inherent risks associated with horseback riding. Deer bolting from the woods in front of a horse is just as likely to spook a horse as is a bicycle. That is a nonfactor, and the commission seems to agree.
Balancing pros and cons, it seems to be a neutral issue.