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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Rice industry linked to waterfowl

by Bryan Hendricks | April 15, 2021 at 2:07 a.m. | Updated April 15, 2021 at 7:10 p.m.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson joined past and present members of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and key legislators Tuesday at the state Capitol to acknowledge the importance of duck hunting and rice farming to Arkansas' culture and economy.

Hutchinson -- along with state Reps. Mark Perry and Jeff Wardlaw, state Sen. Matt Pitsch, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Chairman Andrew Parker and former Game and Fish commissioner George Dunklin -- praised House Concurrent Resolution 1014, which emphasizes the value of waterfowl, rice agriculture, waterfowl hunting and waterfowl habitat to the state's economy.

Dunklin, who served on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission from 2005-12, was also the former president of Ducks Unlimited. He is also a third-generation rice farmer. He said HCR-1017 was essentially a statement linking the economic importance of Arkansas' rice industry and waterfowl hunting to a new farm bill in Congress.

"I've traveled all over the country, and every place I go, people say, 'Tell me what it's like to hunt ducks in the trees in Arkansas,' " Dunklin said. "What we have in Arkansas is really special. There's also a common link to rice and waterfowl habitat, waterfowl hunting and our state's economy."

Hutchinson said that rice farming and waterfowl hunting are like business cards when he promotes Arkansas to world business leaders.

"As governor, when I travel internationally, you've got to have some calling cards, some easily identifiable things that make it, 'Oh, that's special!' " Hutchinson said. "Whenever I travel globally, I talk about Arkansas producing half of the rice produced in the United States. That gets their attention. That's a 'Wow!' moment.

"Then, I tell them we're the duck hunting capital of the world. That takes a little explanation, but they all understand the uniqueness of the environment that we have in Arkansas, and it's tied together by the fact that all the food that's needed for our waterfowl, one-third of it comes from our rice fields. Our rice production, our timber and our waterfowl hunting is second to none. It is a unique opportunity for us to celebrate."

The governor has a keen interest in promoting vital elements of the economy, Hutchinson said, and Arkansas' hunting economy generates numbers that merit attention.

"When I think about 100,000 hunters coming from across the country into Arkansas to enjoy our waterfowl and timber resources, I know that boosts our economy by $70 million," he said. "I know there's an economic benefit as well as bragging rights for some of the best, beautiful timber country we have in the United States, and we have a responsibility to conserve it.

"It's about responsible hunting. It's about responsible land management that is so critical to our future. And whether it's farmers, whether it's hunters, or whether it's just those that go out and enjoy it, we're committed to conserving as great stewards for what God has blessed us with in Arkansas. It is great to be able to celebrate it, to enjoy it and market it, and say come to Arkansas. We've got it all."

All of that is true, but politicians and resource managers must come to terms with some bitter realities. Increasingly efficient rice harvesting machines leave very little rice in the fields. Resident Canada geese get first crack at what remains. Snow, blue and white-fronted geese consume much of what's left before ducks arrive in the fall. If the relationship between rice and waterfowl is to remain viable, incentives must be available for rice farmers to leave a portion of their crop unharvested.

Second, green tree reservoirs owned by the Game and Fish Commission are highly deteriorated. Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, the state's largest public asset, is flooded right now at the peak of leaf-out. If Bayou Meto's red oak timber dies, it cannot be replaced, and the area will lose its value as waterfowl habitat. Given the pace of progress and the irreconcilable nature of the barriers, wholesale timber loss is no longer a matter of if, but when.

Third, indisputable evidence shows that warmer winters have altered waterfowl migration patterns, and excessive hunting pressure alters the feeding habitats of ducks that do arrive.

CORRECTION: State legislators joining Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday regarding duck hunting and rice farming included state Rep. Mark Perry and state Sen. Matt Pitsch. An earlier version of this column gave them incorrect names.

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