At the 112th annual meeting of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) this September, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) was awarded the prestigious Ernest Thompson Seton Award for its campaign to promote and preserve The Natural State’s waterfowl hunting areas.
The award, given at the association’s annual banquet, recognizes the efforts of a state agency to raise public awareness of scientific wildlife management. Judges evaluate agencies based on the quality and effectiveness of their public promotion efforts, the breadth of public interest and new information in the science of wildlife management. The Game and Fish Commission checked all of these boxes with “flying” colors with their presentation on the state’s flooded timber forests and waterfowl hunting.
The annual AFWA meeting is a “who’s who” of fish and wildlife management, bringing together more than 700 leaders from agencies and conservation groups from all over the United States, Canada and Mexico. Needless to say, AGFC was up against tough competition across the continent. Attendees are key decision-makers in the field of fish and wildlife, including directors, assistant directors, program managers and others involved in fisheries, wildlife habitat, law enforcement, legal affairs, industry and public affairs.
The AGFC’s award-winning submission was titled “Public Outreach to Conserve Arkansas’s Flooded Timber Legacy,” and begins with poetic and poignant description of the state as “one of the only places in the world where hunters can experience the thrill of mallards dropping and weaving through mature forests on land owned and managed by the state for public use.” Duck hunting, as a cornerstone of Arkansas culture, is a key feature of the commission’s report on the preservation of flooded timber forestlands. AGFC understands the importance of threading together the needs of humans and wildlife, in order to better protect the wild places that keep The Natural State true to its name.
The report minces no words as it highlights the threats facing Arkansas’s waterfowl hunting havens: Increased and repeated flooding before the trees become dormant is damaging the forests that wintering mallards depend on for shelter and food. To combat this existential threat to the so-called greentree reservoirs – one of Arkansas’s most important wild areas – AGFC has created a multifaceted, ongoing public outreach campaign, and this standout effort was the focus of the agency’s award application.
AGFC also successfully emphasized the wide-ranging repercussions of its work. Since Stuttgart is known as “the duck hunting capital of the world,” AGFC’s work in creating a “paradigm shift” is just the beginning of decades of on-the-ground research and work that will affect generations of hunters and visitors to the state. According to the presentation, “the changing landscape of waterfowl management in The Natural State has the potential to affect Arkansas’s outdoors legacy on a national level.”
The campaign itself began in 2017 and has consisted of various education and communication efforts. The goal of the commission is to not only inform hunters of the problem, but “to ask for understanding, patience and support of the actions that will be required to ensure Arkansas maintains this rich heritage for which it is known.”
The first step in the yearslong process was a simple booklet mailed out to anyone who purchased an Arkansas Duck Stamp from 2012 to 2017. This mailer, built to communicate scientific research about the reservoirs to the duck-loving public, was just the beginning of the agency’s efforts. From there, the commission started in on a series of public meetings, newsletters and social media posts that would engage hunters and stakeholders in meaningful conversations as well as keep them up to date on AGFC’s efforts to preserve and manage the lands.
As with any effort of this magnitude – and with the future of waterfowl habitats and hunting ranges on the line – AGFC officials have had to make tough calls in order to do what’s best for the conservation of the state’s natural resources. One of those hard decisions came from AGFC Director Austin Booth, who, just a few months into his role at the top of the agency, called for a change in water management for George H. Dunklin Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area.
Described by the agency as “the crown jewel of public land duck hunting” and “a bucket-list destination for waterfowlers throughout the country,” time was of the essence when it came to taking action and preventing a deadening event similar to what occurred at Henry Gray Hurricane Lake in 2018. The AGFC’s commitment to not just reacting, but acting in the face of these threats ensures the best outcomes for these areas and the wildlife that inhabit them.
With this decision came the need to shift the agency’s communication approach. AGFC adapted swiftly and made itself even more open to discussion and input from those most affected by the change. Press conferences were coupled with “open-house” style meetings, where the public was invited to sit down and talk one-on-one with biologists, administrators and the commissioners themselves. People are at the heart of any conservation effort, and AGFC made sure that those people felt listened to and informed.
According to the agency’s report, this leg of the campaign was a massive success: “Not only was this effort successful in spreading the continued message of conservation and actions that needed to be taken, but it created much buzz in social media from those who attended, promoting the AGFC’s message for the agency through grassroots communication.”
This was only one facet of the agency’s plans. Another crucial front in the battle for the greentree reservoirs revolved around partnerships with other organizations. AGFC biologists spread the word about conditions in flooded timber areas by appearing on programs like the “Ducks Unlimited,” “Bear Grease” and “Blood Origins” podcasts. The commission also poured energy into printed publications, putting out scientific pieces and feature articles to draw attention to the areas of concern. From digital to print, from public meetings to calling on legislators, the Game and Fish Commission has made and continues to make outreach and action its driving force.
Of course, this campaign and the conservation of the state’s most precious areas is an ongoing struggle, and the agency acknowledged as much in its report to the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies. The work will continue “well into the next decade,” the agency said, and “it may be multiple decades before the effects of the restoration work reach the point that hunters once again see the mallards flock to the timber like they have seen during the last 40 years.”
As restoration and conservation work continues throughout the state’s wetland habitats, AGFC never fails to make communication and public engagement a priority.
“It is our responsibility,” the report continued, “not only to make these tough calls for the benefit of the habitat, but also to keep the people whose lives are entrenched in the silt of our flooded timber waterfowl-hunting heritage informed about the progress and results of our efforts.”
Both the people and the wildlife of Arkansas are lucky to have such a dedicated agency exemplifying the best in conservation and ensuring the legacy of the state and its resources. Scientific communication requires a researcher’s eye and a public speaker’s acuity, and AGFC takes to it – pun intended – like a duck to water. The recognition of AFWA and the Ernest Thompson Seton Award come as no surprise to anyone who has worked in or alongside the commission. Committed, passionate people make up the heart of AGFC, to the benefit of hunters and nature-lovers across the country and around the world. Thanks to the agency’s ongoing efforts to inform, educate and serve the people of Arkansas and its visitors, The Natural State will stay natural for decades to come.