The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is considering changing the dates of the 2023-24 duck season, with the first segment starting before Thanksgiving.
For the 2023-24 season, the staff proposed a 60-day season with three segments that would run Nov. 25-Dec. 3, Dec. 9-23, and Dec. 27-Jan. 31, 2024. A designated youth season would be Feb. 3-4, 2024. A designated veteran's hunt would be on Feb. 4, 2024.
Changing the season on a whim would profoundly compromise the commission's credibility with the public and with its own staff.
Before proposing the new duck season framework, which the commission actually delayed implementing for one year, the commission's wildlife management staff conducted a survey. It evaluated the survey more thoroughly than any it has ever conducted. The commission at that time praised the staff for its devotion to detail and accuracy, and for its responsiveness.
In a Zoom meeting Monday between commissioners and the agency's senior staff, commission chairman Bobby Martin strongly recommended changing the season back to its traditional framework for 2023-24. He and other commissioners said they have since heard from a lot of people -- they called them "influencers" -- to open duck season before Thanksgiving.
Martin, Commissioner John Neely of Camden and Commissioner Bill Jones of Little Rock questioned the thoroughness and accuracy of a survey the agency conducted to gauge public support for a later opener.
In May 2022, we covered a meeting with the commission led by Jennifer Feltz, the commission's conservation social scientist. That meeting was devoted to the discussion of the survey and the breadth of the public's input.
In this space on May 8, we wrote, "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."
Now, some members of the commission say that duck hunters were under-represented in the survey. They said that some misunderstood the proposal and that non-duck hunters marked support for the changes.
None of that is verifiable. Nobody can discern a survey respondent's intent or their competency to respond to a question. The only known data are their responses.
What is verifiable is that a rock-solid process revealed that survey respondents indicated they want duck season to start after Thanksgiving.
As a science-based regulation-producing body, the Game and Fish Commission relies on process. It must trust its process or abandon the process.
As a baseline for accuracy, commission director Austin Booth said the survey's metrics indicated a 95% confidence rate and only a 3% margin of error.
Ignoring the process sends a clear message to staff that surveys are meaningless if they don't support a desired outcome.
Second, it tells the commission's constituents that it is pointless to participate in surveys. For decades the commission has begged sportsmen to comment on regulations. The message in this case is their input doesn't matter if it does not indicate support for a desired outcome.
Third, it sends a clear message that members of the commission more greatly value opinions expressed on social media, the greatest repository of ignorance and misinformation on the planet, than it does in its own process. That sends a clear message that the commission respects internet shouters more than it respects its own process.
Fourth, it sends a clear message that the Game and Fish Commission is not the authoritative source for its own information. People that willfully chose to be uninformed, that ignored the commission's own literature and ignored the commission's invitations to participate in the process can swoop in after the process is complete and coerce the commission into changing a process-based policy.
For decades the commission has begged the public to engage on the commission's own social media platforms, to visit its website for current information and to embrace new technology to interact with the agency. Yielding to a few "influencers" over nearly 3,000 survey respondents sabotages everything the commission has tried to accomplish, negates all the progress it has made in public relations, and sends the clear message that the agency's staff are the least influential of the influencers.