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OPINION | ARKANSAS SPORTSMAN: Area parallels plight of Arkansas duck woods

by Bryan Hendricks | November 28, 2021 at 2:35 a.m.

These bottomland forests sheltered millions of ducks, geese and other migratory birds. The birds came to eat acorns. This staple food provided fuel for ducks' annual migrations. Hunters stood among the area's towering pin oak and swamp white oak trees and watched hundreds of ducks swirl into the flooded timber.

Does this sound familiar? It comes not from an article about Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, Henry Gray Hurricane Lake WMA or Dave Donaldson Black River WMA, but from an article titled "Ted Shanks Redemption," written by Jim Low for "Missouri Conservationist" magazine in 2003. Low, a staff member for the Missouri Department of Conservation, was formerly a communications specialist for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission who broke the story of PCB contamination in wood ducks at Bayou Meto WMA in the 1980s.

The article is about the demise of Ted Shanks Conservation Area, once a highly productive waterfowl conservation area that was decimated by interminable flooding.

Unfortunately, the Ted Shanks story presages the situation facing green tree reservoirs in Arkansas by nearly 20 years.

Another passage from Low's article also rings familiar.

Duck hunter Steve Hoepf began visiting the 6,700-acre area in 1979, soon after the Missouri Department of Conservation bought the property.

"We often had 40 or 50 thousand ducks on the area," Hoepf remembers. Today, when he looks across the Flag Lake tract near the middle of the area, he sees only dead trees and lost opportunities."

Ted Shanks Conservation Area is very similar to Henry Gray Hurricane Lake WMA. It is only a few inches to a few feet above the normal level of the Mississippi River, much as Hurricane Lake is almost level with the Little Red River. When the Army Corps of Engineers in 1942 completed a navigation project that artificially elevated pools on the Mississippi River, the amount of water in the soil rose even to the level of of the Mississippi, making large portions of the area inhospitable to all tree growth.

In Arkansas, surface water lingers and stagnates in our green tree reservoirs, ultimately drowning trees that can't tolerate prolonged inundation. Water tolerant species are replacing more desirable red oak trees that provide food for waterfowl.

The result is the same. Loss of habitat reduces or eliminates an area's value to waterfowl, reducing or eliminating hunting opportunities.

The solutions are also different. Fortunately, forest decline in Arkansas's green tree reservoirs is reversible and reparable. At Ted Shanks CA, the only remedy was to convert cropland in elevations above the Mississippi River to forest. Restoration is not possible in the lower elevations.

In Arkansas, the Game and Fish Commission's traditional water management policy was to trap water as early as possible in the fall and hold it for as long as possible to maximize duck hunting opportunity. Our solution is comparatively easy. We merely have to make inundation cycles dynamic by allowing forests to flood and drain somewhat naturally. The commission won't trap water as early in the fall, and it will remove or modify water control structures to allow water to move into, through, and off green tree areas more easily.

It will be expensive, unconventional and, frankly, inconvenient to those whose hunting strategies have evolved with traditional water management practices. The inescapable fact is that hunters will no longer be able to pattern water movement through Bayou Meto and other areas based on decades-long water holding patterns.

Some people are complaining. Others are examining LIDAR data on the Game and Fish Commission's web site to plot water movement based on revised management plans. Their research has shown them areas that are likely to flood early. From there, they will be able to follow flooding progression through the season, just as they always have. The only difference is that their strategies are based on new flooding regimens.

Some favorite spots might not be huntable for as many days have they were in the past, and there might be more competition for prime huntable water, especially in dry years.

The alternative is a wholesale loss of hunting opportunities that will occur when we lose the nut producing trees that draw ducks to our already small and diminishing amount of green tree habitat.

The conservationist segment of the duck hunting community understands and grudgingly accepts the proposition. It understands that the issue is bigger than the present. Its willingness to sacrifice today for tomorrow is visionary.

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