Overcrowded WMAs a problem

Posted: March 16, 2017 at 2:32 a.m.

Duck hunters are pressuring the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to ease overcrowding on greentree reservoirs, but solutions are hazy.

A wildlife management area's primary purpose is to provide habitat for wildlife. In the fall and winter, the greentree reservoirs primarily function as duck habitat.

The first question is whether current management practices adversely affect the WMAs function as wildlife habitat.

"Management practices" entail more than hunting pressure. The effect of prolonged flooding on desirable oak tree species is a related issue. Boat traffic factors into it, as well. Two years ago it was boat races. Now it's surface-drive motors.

If current hunting pressure demonstrably damages an area's functionality for wildlife habitat, then remedial regulations are appropriate.

If hunting pressure does not adversely affect an area's habitat functionality, does it adversely affect hunter satisfaction?

Defining "satisfaction" and "overcrowding" is subjective.

Ultimately, crowding is hunter density per acre, but that number is always skewed. Ducks concentrate in certain areas of a WMA based on food availability and other factors.

Hunters concentrate where ducks concentrate. That's easy to do because up-to-the-minute scouting reports circulate through social media, online message boards and text messaging.

As a whole, hunter density at Bayou Meto and Black River is sparse, but it is often dense in areas of high duck concentrations, especially on weekends.

What percentage of hunters are non-residents? According to the AGFC, it's not even one-third, judging by the number of out-of-state license plates versus Arkansas license plates on vehicles in the parking lots.

As I understand it, the AGFC may legally limit non-resident access to green tree reservoirs to give preference to resident hunters. If the objective is to relieve overcrowding or to relieve pressure on wildlife, the courts apply a different standard that basically says an agency cannot address a problem at the expense of a single user group.

Limiting non-resident access through drawings is a non-starter. Holding a daily lottery requires every non-resident to gather at a central location at about 3-3:30 a.m. That requires a dedicated space, as well as staff to conduct the drawings, and additional staff to enforce compliance. Areas as large as Bayou Meto and Black River WMAs would require multiple hubs. The expense in money and manpower outweighs the benefit.

Assigning nonresident permits through a random, computerized drawing is another idea that seems to have no support within the commission.

Another idea is to limit the number of days that nonresidents can hunt greentree WMAs. Other states use this method to regulate hunting pressure on their public areas. It would confine spikes in hunting pressure to defined periods, and it would reduce the illegal guiding activities that persist.

Such a regulation might affect the duck hunting economy in east Arkansas. Merchants in Stuttgart and other communities are sensitive to influences that might reduce the money that non-resident duck hunters spend on fuel, food, lodging and entertainment.

On the other hand, Bayou Meto and Black River WMAs comprise about 34,000 acres and 25,000 acres, respectively, but only 15,000-18,000 acres of Bayou Meto floods. They and all of the other greentree areas represent a tiny fraction of bottomland hardwood habitat that once defined eastern Arkansas, but that is where most duck hunting occurs. It is unfair for local chambers of commerce to expect so much economic activity from limited public resources that are at the limits of their sociological carrying capacity.

Finally, what happens if the AGFC acts, but the perception of overcrowding persists? Resident hunters will still be unhappy, nonresidents will feel alienated and stigmatized, and the AGFC will have exhausted all of its options without generating any goodwill, and maybe generating ill will.

It's easy to see how the risks of doing the wrong thing outweigh the risks of doing nothing.

Sports on 03/16/2017