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Hunters dwell on Arkansas' duck decline.

DUCK HUNTING IS ON THE decline in and around Stuttgart, the sport's universally acknowledged world capital, but trying to pinpoint the reason is as difficult as deciding which came first, the duck or the egg.

Some say over-hunting--often using controversial robotic decoys--in Canada and the Great Plains dramatically reduced the population of ducks that survive the migration long enough to reach the Mississippi Flyway that includes the Arkansas Delta.

Others believe over-hunting is just as rampant in the Natural State, where the number of duck stamps sold more than doubled during the 1990s, and that the best remedy would be shortening the 60-day season.

Hunting guides argue that a two-year-old ban on guided hunts on public property has forced professional guides out of the state and taken their tourist clients with them.

But the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission says that the guides' often unsportsmanlike practices forced its hand, and the move has reduced overcrowding on wildlife management areas.

Proponents lauded Arkansas' decision to be the first Flyway state to ban "roboducks," which goes into effect next season, saying other states would join the flock. So far, however, Arkansas is the lone duck.

If there's no silver bullet to improving the quality of hunting in Arkansas, are there at least some changes hunters can agree on? And is a good experience for Arkansas hunters and the revenue dollars out-of-state hunters bring in mutually exclusive?

Mo' Hunters, Mo' Problems

Conventional wisdom would suggest that the 89,454 duck stamps issued in Arkansas last year, the third highest amount ever issued in the state, would mean good times in Stuttgart. More hunters means more business, right?

Stephen Bell, executive vice president of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce, tells another story.

"We've definitely seen a slowdown in tourism [during duck season]," Bell said. "Last year was the worst year hotels had in 10 years in terms of booking."

The problem, Bell explains, is all too obvious to hunters: Stuttgart isn't the same duck hunting haven it was in the mid-1990s. Hunters are having a harder--and less enjoyable--time downing ducks.

And for a town that has generated hunting-related revenue an average of $1 million each day of duck season, the loss of such an important natural resource would be financially painful.

For Tom Denniston, who owns Fort Thompson Sporting Goods in North Little Rock, the drop he has seen in sales for duck hunting-related items is just as depressing as witnessing many of his friends back out of a hobby they've been at all their lives.

Denniston said, "All my customers, who have hunted in Arkansas forever, have quit hunting." The reason? "They're not going to fight the crowds."

Denniston is one of many hunters who believe the sport's rising popularity has conversely affected it's quality.

"It's turned into this free for all," he said. "Bottom line, there's a limited number of places to hunt with too many people."

According to Game and Fish Commission statistics, Arkansas' duck hunter population has more than doubled in the last 10 years. Despite that, the state has continued with 60-day duck seasons since 1998. And to make matters worse, Arkansas' duck populations are falling.

Where Are The Ducks?

A recent report from the Arkansas Wildlife Federation duck committee showed that in the past 13 years Arkansas' mid-winter duck count has progressively decreased while other Mississippi Flyway states are seeing more ducks.

Between 1955 and 1978, 1 million ducks a year were counted in Arkansas 18 times. But in the last 14 years, the state has reached that figure only once. All the while, more hunters are killing more ducks.

"Ducks were attacked from every angle when the season opens. Very rapidly, they went to somewhere else where they weren't getting shot. They'd go to a refuge, a sanctuary or another state," said Dr. Ducote Haynes, who chaired the AWF committee.

Arkansas represents one of the last stops in the transcontinental gauntlet migratory birds travel every winter from as far as the Arctic coast of Alaska, through the provinces of Canada, into the Upper Midwest states and points southward. For some the journey extends as far south as Central America.

But fewer ducks, especially juveniles, are making it that far.

Ten years ago, 100,000 ducks were being killed in North Dakota each year. But, according to the Wildlife Federation's study, that state's annual total is now about 700,000.

Farther north in Canada, hunters are killing ducks in droves with a little mechanical help.

In 1998, two Marysville, Calif., companies--Robo Duk and Fatal deDUCKtion (now called Roto Duck)--began producing motorized duck decoys equipped with spinning wings. The appearance of movement attracted other ducks--especially young ones--so effectively that today many hunters consider the roboducks as integral to the sport as their guns.

Up North, hunters and their roboducks are making suckers out of inexperienced ducks, the very ones needed for reproduction in places like Arkansas.

The Wildlife, Federation's report showed that in Arkansas, hunters have an 80 percent better chance at killing a duck when equipped with a roboduck. In Canada, however, the motorized decoys double the chances of a kill--and in some areas, the advantage increases to 20 times.

"All these ducks are being eradicated up North and what we [in Arkansas] have is this older, hunt-smart duck," Haynes said.

The season that will begin Nov. 20 marks the last year that Arkansas will allow roboducks. The idea is that other Flyway states will follow suit, but that hasn't happened yet.

Guiding North

Veteran duck-hunting guide Dennis Campbell shows off pictures of successful duck hunting trips. The hunters' grins seem frozen on their faces--not from the cold winter weather but from the rows of dead ducks on racks before them, lined up like smiling teeth.

Through his company, Rolling Thunder Waterfowl Guide Service, Campbell used to take scores of hunters through Arkansas' green-timber duck-hunting hot spots every season.

But Campbell's most recent photos show scenes foreign in Arkansas. The hunters pose in front of wheat and corn stubble, even a Canadian flag. Most alarming, however, is that they're all showing off nothing less than a day's limit of ducks, and they're doing it in areas far north of Arkansas.

Campbell doesn't guide hunts in Arkansas anymore. He says it's because duck hunters don't enjoy Arkansas as much as they used to.

"A rice field [in Arkansas] won't compete against a wheat field," Campbell said. "A rice field won't compete against a cornfield in Nebraska."

Campbell also blames the Game & Fish Commission's decision two years ago to ban guides from public lands. In 2000, the Arkansas Guide's Associa-tion sued the G&FC in hopes of stopping it from adopting the ban but to no avail.

Campbell said he would rather guide in Arkansas--and many of his out-of-state clients would rather hunt here--but only if they are able to hunt on public lands.

The G&FC, on the other hand, say that the ban was intended to reduce crowding at public wildlife management areas and prevent guided hunters from getting an unfair advantage.

Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the commission, said, "When a guide takes seven, eight, 10 people out there, it realty becomes a safety issue. You want to try to give them as much space as possible."

Stevens also said that the commission received a slew of reports that guides would sneak into the hunting grounds before the 4 a.m. start time and squat the best locations.

Campbell didn't dispute the problems but said, "That's a logistics problem, Are you going to try and solve a logistics problem by throwing the whole thing out?"

Finding a Solution

While some hunters were glad to see the ban on guides on public lands, the measure has done nothing to bring more ducks farther south.

The Wildlife Federation is representing what it believes is the minority, of Arkansas' hunters when it calls for a shortening of the season.

Every year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service decides how many days the season will be, either 60, 45, 30 or none. Called Adaptive Harvest Management, the hunting seasons are determined by a matrix that takes into account information on harvest levels, population sizes and habitat conditions.

All of the Flyway states got permission to have as many as 60 days this year, and that's how many all of them will take.

The Wildlife Federation, however, sees a glitch in the matrix. Haynes said that Adaptive Harvest Management counts the number of breeding ducks in potholes, or duck nests. But ducks don't raise their young in potholes, Haynes said. A mallard will raise as far as a mile from the water, where the pothole is, and a pintail two miles.

Haynes said, "We think it's flawed. It doesn't take into account the loss of grasslands" or losses from predators.

The result is that duck population figures are inflated, Haynes argues. And the best solution would be to shorten the season or to use a draw system limiting hunters.

A draw system has already been used effectively for Raft Creek, a G&FC wildlife management area in White County, Haynes said.

A draw system would limit the number of hunters, and a shortened season could put less pressure on the ducks.

But that wouldn't be beneficial to everyone.

In Stuttgart, where a longer duck season means more days for hunters to spend in hotels and restaurants, bigger means better.

"We're always for the 60 days," Bell said.
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Title Annotation:Executive Sportsmen
Comment:Hunters dwell on Arkansas' duck decline.(Executive Sportsmen)
Author:Taulbee, Chip
Publication:Arkansas Business
Geographic Code:1U7AR
Date:Sep 13, 2004
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