Water is knee deep in the Upper Vallier portion of Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area today, and that's bad news for the future of duck hunting.
About 60 people, including members of the Legislature, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, resource managers and board members for Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl toured the area Tuesday. It was a much bigger group than the one that took the same tour in May, when Upper Vallier was beginning to dry after having been inundated for much of the spring.
Torrential rain in June flooded the area anew for the past three weeks. The water is about knee-deep, perfect for duck hunting, but standing water in summer is bad for the area's red oak trees. Ultimately, that's bad for ducks and for duck hunting.
In May, Tom Foti, a noted forest ecologist formerly with the the Arkansas Department of Natural Heritage, briefed many of the same people about a comprehensive forest health assessment that he is overseeing. A very high percentage of the red oak trees in Bayou Meto are severely stressed, most notably nuttall oak, willow oak, water oak and cherrybark oak. They produce small acorns that ducks eat in the late fall and early winter, but they are being replaced by overcup oaks, which produce acorns that are too big for ducks to eat.
Losing a vital winter food source will diminish Bayou Meto WMA's appeal to ducks, which will affect how ducks orient to the Grand Prairie. George Dunklin, a former Game and Fish Commissioner, former president of Ducks Unlimited and owner of Five Oaks Duck Lodge, said that the 34,000-acre WMA is such a focal point for ducks that it greatly influences the way ducks use private land in the area.
"If we lose Bayou Meto, we could lose it all," Dunklin said. "That's how important it is."
In 1948, the Game and Fish Commission acquired Bayou Meto WMA for about $7 an acre, said Mark Hooks, the AGFC's regional wildlife management supervisor. It was the first property the commission bought using Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration funds. For about 40 years, the commission did not have a water management policy for the area. The area manager started catching water as early as August when rice farmers drained their fields.
In 1989, a neighboring farmer won a judgment against the commission over crop damage from floodwater on the WMA. Hooks said his first assignment was to develop a water management plan for the WMA.
"We held public meetings, meetings with commissioners and formalized meetings with the commission," Hooks said.
The process produced a 150-page document, Hooks said. Hooks presented the document to Game and Fish Commissioner Harold Ives of Stuttgart.
"When you walked into his office, he sat up on a pedestal so that you were looking up at him," Hooks said. "It was pretty intimidating, especially for a young biologist.
"About five minutes into my presentation, Ives said, 'Young man, I don't care what's in your plan. All I want you to do is not flood the farmer and have plenty of water for the duck hunters.' "
Under Ives' directive, the plan's priority was to catch and hold water. To that end, Bayou Meto WMA has 42 miles of levees and numerous water control structures. Unfortunately, resource managers did not know as much then about the effects of sustained flooding on bottomland hardwood timber as they do now.
The priority should have been to manage water to ensure forest health with an emphasis on sustaining winter duck habitat. Instead, priorities were reversed, and the effects are glaringly evident. In May, Foti noted how many trees were leaning. He didn't have to point far. They were everywhere. Leaning trees eventually fall, Foti said.
On Tuesday, several red oaks that were leaning in May had fallen. Foti and Luke Naylor also noted portions of tree crowns that had no leaves, another poor health indicator.
"The very tips of the branches have no leaves," Naylor said. "If the crown is dead, it's telling you there are serious issues below ground with the roots. It's part of a negative feedback loop where a tree keeps tipping over until it falls. It may die standing up and tip over later."
Naylor pointed to trees that had swollen bases, yet another poor health indicator.
"You see where the base of the tree is swole out a little bit," Naylor said. "Gas is trying to escape out of the tree during the growing season, but it can't do it because water is covering that part of the trunk. It's trying to expel gas, but it can't. Essentially it blows up. Eventually it will split and disease will get into it."
All of these things are merely parts of the landscape to the average duck hunter. Naylor said hunters need to think about them and understand that the Game and Fish Commission must change the way it manages water to prevent the area from becoming a waterfowl desert. That will probably mean that some hunters will be inconvenienced. Some areas might not be flooded every year. Some might flood and be drained early.
"Fifty or sixty years of focusing only on having water for duck season ends up in this spot," Naylor said. "The infrastructure is designed to hold back every inch of water we can for duck season. That's great during the winter, and it sounded good at the time, but now look at what's happened with all different stresses. The focus now should be on making water move through here instead of holding it here."
Naylor cited Cache River National Wildlife Refuge and Rex Hancock Black Swamp WMAs as areas that retain natural water flow. Their bottomland hardwoods are healthy.
Naylor and Hooks said solid data drive these theories. Past management was based on court cases and the law of supply and demand. Future policy will be science-based, Naylor said.
Brad Carner, chief of the Game and Fish Commission's wildlife management division, framed the issue in stark wildlife management terms. He said that there has been zero red oak reproduction in significant portions of Bayou Meto WMA for almost a decade. Trees live a long time, so the effects of non-reproduction are not immediately evident.
On the other hand, think about what would happen to our state's deer population after a decade of zero reproduction. Turkey hunters have long noticed the effects of minimal reproduction, partly for the same reasons that affect the forests.
Without significant forest regeneration, Bayou Meto WMA will evolve into a forest that has little to no value for waterfowl. That would deal a crippling blow to duck hunting on the Grand Prairie as a whole.
The tour's overarching message was that changes are coming, and they will take decades to bear fruit. Hunters recently would have rejected that proposition, but we all notice fewer ducks migrating into the state. They arrive later and behave differently than they traditionally have. The quality of duck hunting in Bayou Meto is a whisper of what it used to be. In that light, hunters are already inconvenienced.
Today, they might be more receptive to changes that have been put off for far too long.