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The duck decline

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour once described duck hunting this way: "The camaraderie and collegiality you get in duck hunting is totally different from other hunting because you're together and form a bond of shared experience. You may be an ambassador or a governor. But when you duck hunt, you can always be a 17-year-old."

Much has been said and written about the huge decline in the number of mallards that wintered in Arkansas this year. And it should be a subject that's discussed since duck hunting is so important to the east Arkansas economy.

Breeding conditions haven't been good in the prairie pothole region of Canada. Combine those lower populations with a fall drought that left Arkansas without the water hunters are accustomed to each winter.

Next, throw in the late arrival of snowstorms in states to the north such as Missouri and Iowa. Ducks had mild conditions, no snow cover and plenty of food up north until January. There was no reason for them to fly south until late in the season.

These things are cyclical, and I'm convinced that mallard numbers will rebound at some point. There's also good news on the ground as the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission finally tackles the issue of hardwood deaths in its green-tree reservoirs.

I'm further comforted by the fact that some of the best minds in the state -- folks like George Dunklin and the scientists at the University of Arkansas at Monticello -- spend 12 months a year thinking about increasing duck numbers in Arkansas.

While duck numbers are declining, millions of geese that once wintered along the Gulf Coast south of Houston now spend the season here in Arkansas. Goose hunting has never been part of the Arkansas cultural fabric like duck hunting, but we have plenty of smart business leaders involved in the waterfowl business.

Guess what they've discovered?

Out-of-state visitors will come to Arkansas for geese as well as ducks.

The nationally famous Mack's Prairie Wings at Stuttgart now sponsors what's known as the World Championship Snow Goose Conservation Hunt early each February. This year, what the AGFC labels "the light goose conservation order" began Feb. 1. There are no limits during the special order, which runs until April 25. Hunters may use unplugged shotguns and electronic calls.

The Arkansas Waterfowl Association explains the special season this way: "Light geese can be a nuisance to Arkansas farmers. They have become so abundant that in some places they are damaging ecosystems and other wildlife found there. ... Increased hunting opportunity is the first wildlife management tool biologists turn to because it costs very little to implement and is much more socially accepted -- especially when a valuable protein source will be put to good use -- than other population control measures."

Even during duck season, I now see more and more photos on social media from commercial operations that take customers out to hunt geese after the morning duck hunt.

This is the future of Arkansas waterfowl hunting: continue to improve habitat for ducks while making geese part of the equation.

In his foreword to the book "A Million Wings," professional golfer Davis Love III writes: "I learned that being an outdoorsman was not just about hunting. The sportsmen I met were truly stewards of the land. They were involved with Ducks Unlimited, marsh projects and property management. I was immediately pulled into that contagious culture, so I was committed to conservation very early. ... This is what outdoorsmen do. They work together to make a difference for wildlife and embrace the preservation of precious habitat for all time.

"Like in golf, the big clubs and the professional game are a small part of the whole story, but they motivate people to grow the game. The families and the members in these clubs are the ones who motivate the rest of us. They're the ones who are growing the sport."

Arkansas will continue to be one of the top places in the world for waterfowl hunting. We have too much tradition, too much habitat and too many smart people working hard for it to be otherwise.

We're just going to have to make geese a bigger part of the recipe going forward. I'll address this issue further in my column Sunday on the editorial page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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