LITTLE ROCK — A proposal by the state Game and Fish Commission to eliminate duck blinds at wildlife management areas in northeastern Arkansas drew sharp criticism from legislators and hunters during a legislative committee meeting Thursday.
The proposal, which the commission is scheduled to vote on at its Aug. 16 meeting, would ban permanent duck blinds at the St. Francis Sunken Lands and Big Lake wildlife management areas, the only two wildlife management areas in the state where permanent duck blinds are allowed.
The commission also is proposing to ban overnight decoy spreads at those areas and the Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, also in northeastern Arkansas. A 30-day public comment period on the proposals began Thursday.
At a meeting of the legislative Game and Fish Commission Oversight Committee on Thursday, several legislators said they had been contacted by hunters who were concerned about losing the 230 duck blinds.
"Out of my 5 1/2v years of being a legislator, this issue had brought up more talk than anything that I’ve been involved in," said Rep. Michael Patterson, D-Piggott, adding that almost everyone who has contacted him has been opposed to eliminating the duck blinds.
"If these regulations are passed and you do not let hunters go out and access this themselves, I’m going to be on the phone asking you every day to go out there and do it so these guys can duck hunt," said Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould.
Construction of new blinds has been banned since 2006. The blinds are supposed to be open to hunters on a first-come, first-served basis, but Loren Hitchcock, the commission’s director, and Ricky Chastain, its deputy director, told the committee that some hunters have treated the blinds as their private property.
Incidents of hunters harassing the public, posting "private property" signs, putting locks on blinds, chopping down trees, using herbicide on vegetation and leaving blinds strewn with trash influenced the commission’s desire to do away with the blinds, Chastain said. He showed the committee photos illustrating the illegal activity he described.
Chastain also said a survey of hunters across the state found that 73 percent opposed permanent blinds, with 64 percent of northeastern Arkansas hunters opposing them. The survey also found that 74 percent of hunters statewide opposed overnight decoy spreads, with 63 percent in northeastern Arkansas opposing them.
Hitchcock also said there is a possibility that the state could lose or have to repay federal funding for the wildlife management areas if the federal government objects to treating some areas differently from others.
Danny Ford of Rector, a member of the state Parks and Tourism Commission, testified that eliminating the blinds would be a setback for duck hunting in the northeast corner of the state.
"Don’t let a small number of people ruin a very good situation," he said. "There’s so many good families it’s going to effect. We don’t have the lakes and lodges and everything in Northeast Arkansas, but we’ve got great duck hunting."
Legislators suggested that the commission consider alternatives such as greater enforcement of existing laws and regulations or a lottery system that would assign duck blinds to specific hunters.
Hitchcock said later he believed the meeting was constructive, as were previous public meetings on the topic.
"I’m sure a lot of this will play into the final decision," he said.