If you hunt ducks at Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, you really should visit this month.
Park at the Upper Vallier Access and walk about half a mile down the levee. Walk into the woods either direction. Be sure to wear high-water footwear because when you enter the woods, the water wells halfway up the sole.
Take a good look around and notice all the trees that are freshly on the ground. Their root wads are so small. You might wonder how such a small root system supported such a big tree. Ultimately, it couldn't. That's why the tree is on the ground. It's generous to call the soil mud. Its consistency is more like slurry, too thin and weak to support shallow-rooted trees.
Now, notice all of the big trees in that area leaning precariously.
You've hunted around leaners for years without giving them a second thought. Those trees will be on the ground soon as well. If you wonder why there aren't as many ducks in Bayou Meto as there used to be, those trees are a big reason.
Tom Foti, one of America's preeminent foresters, described the sight live and in color Tuesday to a large group of members of the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation, state board members for Ducks Unlimited, and four members of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. For the last several years, Foti has supervised the most intensive inventory of the Bayou Meto WMA forest ever conducted. His findings confirmed what wildlife biologists have been saying for years. Without drastic and heroic intervention, Bayou Meto's red oak forest is headed for extinction.
Prolonged and chronic inundation has stressed the red oak trees in the WMA's green tree reservoirs so severely that 75% of the trees will die in about five years. All those big leaning red oaks? They're coming down, and nothing can stop them.
Green tree reservoirs at other WMAs are in equal peril, especially Henry Gray Hurricane Creek WMA, which has lost 1,000 acres of red oak timber in a very short time.
"The South GTR [green tree reservoir] is done," said Luck Naylor, the Game and Fish Commission's waterfowl program coordinator.
Statewide, 40% of the red oak timber in the green tree reservoirs will be gone in five years, as well.
Now, look at all the big, healthy trees. Those are water oaks, overcup oaks and other water-tolerant species. Unlike willow and Nuttall oaks, which produce little acorns that ducks eat, the water tolerant oaks produce acorns too large for ducks to eat.
"They are yummy," Foti said. "If they could chop them up, ducks would love them."
Without a preferred food source, fewer ducks use these areas, and they use them less frequently. We've all noticed Bayou Meto WMA become decreasingly productive over the last 10-15 years. Really good days are fewer, and hunters work harder and spend more hours afield to kill the same number of mallards as before. Mallards go to better habitat elsewhere, and they stay there.
While most of the big red oaks cannot be saved, Game and Fish Commission biologists say that a new red oak forest can regenerate at Bayou Meto, Hurricane and other green tree areas. It will require entirely re-engineering water movement on and off the area. For example, the water control structure at Upper Vallier should be about twice as long as the existing structure. It should also be relocated about 70-80 yards so that it spans the channel instead of being offset, which creates that big dogleg that disrupts water flow. It will also require different style gates that regulate water flow more efficiently. The same goes for the rest of the water control structures not only at Bayou Meto, but at the other WMAs with green tree reservoirs.
The levees need to be redesigned and rebuilt so that water flows gently over them when it reaches the GTR's target height.
All of this work is going to be very expensive, and it will take years to complete.
A lot of federal money will soon be available to repair infrastructure. Considering how much economic activity green tree reservoirs generate in Arkansas, these projects should be eligible. There will be a lot of competition for those dollars, so it wouldn't hurt for duck hunters, birdwatchers and other wildlife enthusiasts to put in a good word with their elected officials to help restore such ecologically critical habitat.
Otherwise, the green tree duck hunting that made Arkansas famous will be lost. That's not an opinion. It's a fact.