Time is now to restore duck habitat

A depressed cycle in duck population is the best time for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to renovate its deteriorated green tree reservoirs.

Following a meeting Feb. 10 in Pocahontas about renovating the green tree reservoir at Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife, I chatted with a friend that owns a cabin adjacent to Bayou Meto WMA. He said that his group kills an average of about 1,000 mallards per year. In 2023-24, they killed 250 ducks. Only about one-third were mallards. The rest were wood ducks and teal.

Teal? At Bayou Meto?

Yes. This bunch has a field that attracts teal. They killed a blue winged teal for the first time during the regular season this year. Unfortunately, it was a drab hen instead of a dapper drake.

Like many duck hunters, my friend is disheartened. Besides killing fewer ducks, he is seeing fewer ducks. Hunting this season was only good for about 10 days, when everything froze up.

"The bayou that runs past my place was the only water that was open, and brother, they were all in it," he said.

Duck populations look like they are going to be down for a while. Hunters finally understand and are resigned to what they believe is an inevitable 30-day duck season, a smaller daily bag limit or both. With expectations down, this is the time to implement plans to renovate the areas.

By "plans," the Game and Fish Commission wants to install modern water control structures and operational strategies to facilitate water movement through its green tree reservoirs. Historically, its policy was to trap and hold water on bottomland hardwood forests in the fall, maintain a deep reservoir through the winter, and then drain water after duck season.

The flaws of that policy killed valuable bottomland hardwood timber, including the red oak species that produce the tiny acorns that feed ducks. First, understand that until very recently, there was very little peer-reviewed science about water management on bottomland hardwood forests. Most of the science is very recent. Most of it was also conducted by or funded by the Game and Fish Commission.

The commission learned that trees in Southeast Arkansas are not dormant in November. Inundating root systems stresses non-dormant trees.

Second, water trapped in a static reservoir between levees does not move. Static water does not churn water from the atmosphere, so it becomes anoxic. We know what anoxic water does to fish. It is also bad for trees.

Third, water levels in the rivers that shed water from the WMAs have been too high to allow water to drain in the spring.

Instead of holding the same water all winter, the AGFC wants to install or update structures that maintain lower water levels during the winter and that promote moving water at a slow speed through the WMAs throughout periods of inundation.

Lowering water levels has already resulted in fewer places to hunt in green tree areas in the winter, largely because of dry autumns. Mallards prefer shallow water where they can tip down and dig their bills into the ground. That water is too shallow for boating. There is a conflict there, but when a conflict exists between the public and the resource, the commission errs in favor of the resource.

Game and Fish Commission officials say it will take about five years to complete the physical parts of the renovation. It will take a lot longer than that for new trees to regenerate. If it is necessary to inconvenience hunters for five years, it seems better to do it when waterfowl populations are at an ebb and when duck seasons and limits might be shortened.

Alarmists will lament that converging these events will kill duck hunting. It will not. As long as there are ducks to shoot, people will shoot them. Those that depart from the sport for a while will come back when duck numbers ascend.

We can't take recovery for granted given the demands on the environment from a worldwide population of nearly 9 billion people. The squeeze on wildlife habitat underscores the need for high-quality habitat in the southern part of the Mississippi Flyway.

Today's duck hunters will not experience the full benefit of restored forests, but we will continue to experience the diminishing returns of abused forests.

If there is a right time to repair them, it is now.

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