Since Austin Booth became director in May 2021, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has emphasized public communication.
The latest example is the public input process for the 2022-23 hunting regulations proposals. It is a voluminous list. The commission has spent considerable effort analyzing and categorizing a vast number of public comments.
On Thursday, the commission's regulations committee held a meeting to discuss public input to the regulations proposals so far. Physically present at the meeting were commissioners Stan Jones of Alicia and Benny Westphall of Fort Smith. Attending virtually were commissioners J.D. Neeley of Camden, Rob Finley of Mountain Home and Phillip Tappan of Little Rock.
In 17 years of covering the commission, I've not seen anything like it, a meeting devoted solely to evaluating and digesting public comments.
Facilitating the meeting was Jennifer Feltz, the commission's conservation social scientist. One of her jobs is to conduct, analyze and process public input.
I was astonished at the depth to which Feltz and her team had prepared for this presentation. I was doubly astonished at the level of self-examination to which Feltz and her crew subjected themselves relative to how the public interpreted the questions on the online survey.
In the past, commission staff reflexively attributed miscommunication to the inability of citizens to grasp issues. On Thursday, Feltz reported that consistent themes strongly suggested that the commission's staff bore at least partial responsibility for miscommunication.
The first item the group discussed was proposals for the 2022-23 duck season dates. The wildlife management division prefers a 60-day season with three segments running Nov. 25-Dec. 3, 2022, Dec. 9-23, and Dec. 27 - Jan. 31, 2023.
Some of my conversations suggest that duck hunters believe starting duck season later than usual in November means that duck season will extend later, into February. All of the proposed dates are published. Nothing suggests the season will extend into February, but some people conflate "later season" to mean ending later.
That is not the case. It will be a more compressed duck season that starts later in November. The splits will be shorter, but it will still end on Jan. 31, as it always does.
There was considerable discussion about starting bear season earlier in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains. Feltz said that nearly 80% of survey respondents commented in favor of an earlier start in Bear Management Zones 1-2.
Myron Means, the commission's large carnivore coordinator, said that he is sensitive to criticism that bear season dates in the mountains favor archery hunters. By the time modern gun season arrives, Means said, diminishing bear activity reduces the chance of killing a bear with a modern weapon.
"Historically, I'd say that the overwhelming majority of modern gun hunters were incidental bear hunters," Means said. "The modern gun quota is rarely met. Gun hunters are kind of late to the game. Bears are already restricting their daily movements, and females might be starting their den cycles. The daily movements of bears really change from mid October to late November."
Means said that nearly 80% of bears taken statewide during the first 10 days of the season by hunters using archery tackle.
"That's why everything is skewed to archery hunters," Means said. "If we were meeting the quota with modern guns, we might be willing to share more of the pie."
The commission also spent considerable time discussing proposals to increase the price of the non-resident guide license and to restrict guiding privileges for guides convicted of guiding under the influence of drugs and alcohol. There was some confusion over why existing laws for boating or driving under the influence don't address this issue.
Booth explained that guiding is, like driving or boating, an administrative privilege. Currently, no regulation governs impaired guiding. The proposed regulation would remedy the deficiency.
An amusing exchange occurred over a proposed regulation requiring anybody to contact the Game and Fish Commission before taking possession of a deer or turkey killed with a motor vehicle. Some public commenters asked if an animal taken into possession in this manner would count against one's annual bag limit.
Ralph Meeker, the agency's deer program coordinator, asked, "Is somebody calling in and reporting 40 deer a year?"
"If you had a cattle guard on your truck, you could sure do it," replied Roger Mangum, the commission's deputy director.
Those comments opened a momentary wormhole that threatened to temporarily derail the meeting.
Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see and hear the commission take public comments so seriously. It was a first for me.