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OPINION | REX NELSON: The duck doctors

by Rex Nelson | July 23, 2023 at 1:45 a.m.

It's a hot July morning, and duck hunting isn't on the minds of most Arkansans. It's very much on my mind, though.

I'm near the banks of Bayou Meto in southeast Arkansas, eating lunch at Five Oaks, one of the nation's most famous hunting lodges. At the head of the table is George Dunklin. As a former president of Ducks Unlimited, the world's foremost waterfowl organization, Dunklin made nationwide contacts. No one is better connected when it comes to wetland conservation.

Dunklin served seven years on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, was chairman during his final year, and became the leading proponent for finding innovative ways to attract migrating ducks to Arkansas. He was among Gov. Mike Huckabee's best appointees to state boards and commissions during Huckabee's decade as governor. Dunklin's term on the commission ended in June 2012.

Dunklin didn't get much rest after leaving the commission. He became DU president in May 2013. He was the 42nd president of the organization and only the second from Arkansas.

The United States has lost more than half its original wetlands and continues to lose an average of 80,000 wetland acres each year. When soybean prices soared during the 1960s and 1970s, tens of thousands of acres in east Arkansas were drained for row-crop agriculture. Some of that land has since been returned to hardwoods.

Joining Dunklin, his wife Livia and me at the table on this Thursday are Douglas Osborne of the University of Arkansas at Monticello, Corey Dunn of Ducks Unlimited, and Ryan Askren of Five Oaks Agriculture Research & Education Center. Yes, Five Oaks is more than a hunting operation these days.

Dunklin wants to make Arkansas a center of waterfowl research. In December 2020, he entered into a partnership with UAM and the University of Arkansas System's Division of Agriculture. Dunklin said he would contribute $600,000 during the next three years to provide tuition assistance and stipends for students enrolled in a graduate certificate program. Almost 6,000 acres owned by Dunklin are used for research. Students are housed at Dunklin's Little Siberia, which was once a noted privately owned hunting club.

The graduate certificate in waterfowl habitat and recreation management involves two semesters, 18 credit hours and a $20,000 scholarship. The program curriculum consists of two core field-based classes each semester and one elective. The rest of the students' time is spent at Five Oaks, engaged in hands-on learning.

Osborne, who has been at UAM since July 2012, spends 70 percent of his time doing research as a UA Division of Agriculture employee and 30 percent of his time teaching in UAM's College of Forestry, Agriculture & Natural Resources. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Western Illinois University and his doctorate from Southern Illinois University.

Askren is director of Five Oaks Agriculture Research and Education Center. After receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, he obtained a master's degree from UAM and a doctorate from the University of Illinois.

I think of these folks as the duck doctors, intent on making sure Arkansas maintains its status as a haven for wintering waterfowl. And also intent on training the next generation of researchers.

"The history of waterfowl hunting is tremendous in this state, but there has never been that much research done here," Osborne says.

Six years ago, Osborne began using UAM students to band ducks each winter north of McGehee. The program has grown steadily. Almost 30,000 wintering mallards have been banded in those six years.

"I saw this as an opportunity to connect the research we're doing and the students who are doing it with the hunting community," Osborne says.

Askren grew up in Iowa and went to college in Wisconsin, but he knew of Arkansas' reputation as the nation's duck hunting capital. He says the three pillars of programs offered at Five Oaks are scientific research, outreach and education, and training students. In addition to bands on the legs of ducks, students now can attach transmitters.

"They give us a lot more detail on the ducks' movements," Askren says. "We can see when they're flying, when they're eating and what the effect of hunting pressure is on their movements. The research we're doing will help DU, state agencies and federal agencies spend money more efficiently."

AGFC has launched a massive effort to restore the health of oak trees in greentree reservoirs that are in state wildlife management areas. The most famous of those areas, the George Dunklin Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, is adjacent to Five Oaks. Askren says one of the beauties of Arkansas is that everyone--Five Oaks, UAM, the Division of Agriculture, AGFC, DU--is on the same page when it comes to habitat improvements.

"The kind of research being done here at Five Oaks will help us improve best management practices on both public and private lands," Dunn says. "The efforts of each of these entities complements what the other entities are doing. Five Oaks is a nonprofit organization, and its work with the public institutions is an example of a public-private partnership at its best."

Arkansas grows almost half the nation's rice, and DU is working with producers statewide to implement practices that enhance waterfowl habitat while improving farm profitability and water quality. Dunn is also leading efforts to raise $500,000 for a DU endowment. The endowment will help fund a professorship in wetlands and waterfowl conservation at UAM. Money will be used for salary supplements and support of academic activities.

"This is about more than just me," Osborne says. "An endowed professorship ensures this kind of work can go on in perpetuity. Arkansas is the epicenter of waterfowl hunting. We should also be the epicenter of waterfowl research."

Waterfowl hunting has at least a $500 million economic impact on the state each year. Dunklin, who grew up at Pine Bluff, began accompanying his father hunting at age 8. His maternal grandfather, Lester Black, owned farmland in Arkansas County. After college at what's now the University of Memphis, where he played tennis, Dunklin moved to Arkansas County to farm the family land and never left. In 2009, he was named the nation's Budweiser Conservationist of the Year.

After lunch, Dunklin takes us on a tour of the surrounding farm. We see hundreds of acres of natural grasses in bloom. In an adjoining field, millet is being planted as food for migrating waterfowl that will arrive late this year. We examine a large grove of hardwood trees that were planted in 2006 and then walk into one of Five Oaks' greentree reservoirs to examine young hardwoods that have been planted near mature trees.

The vision statement for Five Oaks reads: "Our vision is to sustain the life history requirements of mallard ducks in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley through healthy hardwood stands and other wetland complexes, and consistently offer the nation's highest-quality waterfowl hunting experiences on both private and publicly held properties."

The mission statement reads: "The mission of Five Oaks Agriculture Research & Education Center is to sustain and increase a vanishing bottomland hardwood forest ecosystem using the life history requirements of the mallard duck as indicators of the health of the ecosystem and develop scientific professionals and guide public and private forest management to increase this critical wetland ecosystem complex."

An editorial in The Pine Bluff Commercial at the time the Five Oaks center was announced put it best: "No one may remember George Dunklin's name 100 years from now, but if at that time ducks, with their wings cupped, are eagerly swinging down through the limbs of flooded red oak trees and splashing down for a few acorns, that's all that matters."

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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