Deer Harvest, Wildlife Habitat Improving; Public-Private Effort Gaining Momentum

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Wildlife conservationist Kirk Dupps of Carroll County knows how to coax the most out of his land. And after more than 20 years of effort, it shows.

His 1,400 acres along the White River support several productive ecosystems and a vast array of wildlife and vegetation. With an abundant and healthy supply of deer and turkey, his land is excellent for hunting. But with over a mile of river frontage, a blue heron rookery, eagles banking through the sky and mountain views, it’s just as good for leisure.

He doesn’t mow his acreage before August for the protection of turkey eggs and fawns. Trees and limbs are left where they fall. Cedar glades are thinned and riparian borders along waterways are improved. Those are just a few of the things Dupps does to maintain his land as a wildlife paradise.

Dupps, a retired executive with Sam’s Club and co-founder of Community First Bank of Harrison, is one of hundreds of private property owners working with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to utilize state and federal programs for the betterment of their lands.

From the state’s Deer Management Assistance Program to a conservation plan administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dupps is doing his part to enhance the size and quality of the state’s supply of game.

Just one of an assortment of measures offered at the state and federal level, the deer program seeks to enhance the natural habitat, and in turn, the annual harvest of game — particularly that of white-tailed deer.

A former member of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Dupps has been enrolled in the state’s deer management program for more than a decade.

In his case, it was selective timbering of 13 acres to open up areas to the growth of wildflowers, and the planting of native foods, among other techniques, that helped improve his deer population. Benchmarks used to measure the success of the program include overall deer weight, antler size and doe-to-buck ratio.

As Dupps transformed what was once an overgrown foreclosure into a model wildlife habitat, state officials were with him every step of the way. Private land biologists, deer and fish biologists and foresters helped him determine and execute his course of action.

“They’ve been immensely beneficial,” he said. “It’s way too big for me to manage by myself.” 

More than 20 years into his endeavor, Dupps is seeing the results he wanted — a healthy habitat producing healthy animals.

“The quality of the deer has improved dramatically,” he said.


Historic Deer Harvest

Statewide, there are about 772 hunting clubs involved with the deer management program with a combined managed acreage exceeding 1.5 million. In the north and west zones, which stretch from Polk to Benton and from Washington to Searcy counties, there are about 170 clubs enrolled in deer management.

Statistics provided by the AGFC show the program is paying off. At a head count of more than 213,000, the 2012 state deer harvest was the largest in the last 75 years. The success rate for hunters, at over 70 percent, was also at an all-time high in 2012.

As more and more private landowners begin to participate with state initiatives, the better those numbers could become.

“You have to work with private lands to access the wildlife population,” said Trevor Mills, a private land biologist with the AGFC.

As part of his job, Mills is on the frontline. He makes free site visits and makes recommendations on ways landowners can make improvements. He has plenty of suggestions at his disposal. Among the recommendations are forest stand improvements, prescribed burns, food and harvest plots, cover thickets, riparian buffers and planting native grasses.

“There are a variety of different habitat enhancement techniques that we recommend to land owners, whether they participate in our deer management assistance program or not,” Mills said. “The main goal is habitat improvement, even if it’s minor.”

People like Mills work hand-in-hand with the Arkansas Forestry Commission and the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service to help private landowners find and utilize the programs they need. Some federal cost-share programs, awarded on a competitive basis, can cover as much as 70 percent of the expense of implementing a beneficial system, and Mills can help guide a property owner through the maze of paperwork and bureaucracy.

Thus far, it hasn’t been difficult for Mills to convince landowners to enroll.

“They see the benefit of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “We want to manage the entire ecosystem.”


Bear Mountain

Roger Harness, owner of Harrison-based Harness Roofing, is also an enrollee in private-public programs. He oversees the sprawling, 3,000-acre hunting ranch in Searcy County named Bear Mountain.

A member of deer management for six years, he’s agreed to selective timbering and prescribed burns, both of which have improved the deer’s food supply. More food means bigger, healthier deer, which in turn make Bear Mountain a better place to hunt.

“You have to open up some areas to let second growth come in,” he said, referring to timbering and prescribed burns.

With a piece of land as large as Bear Mountain, it takes time to implement improvements. But that hasn’t stopped him from planning for the future, and at some point he will plant a wildlife orchard.

Harness is a lifetime hunter, and for many years, he said, he loved to head out during hunting season and “kill a deer.” He still loves to hunt, but over time he has become attached to the larger issue of sculpting the land into a great habitat.

“Now, I’m doing something year round, and that’s part of the process,” he said. “It enhances the wildlife experience.”

Bear Mountain, however, is not just about deer, turkey and bear. Harness has a personal attachment to the land. The estate encompasses the homestead of his great-great-grandmother and the homestead of his great-grandfather.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I spend as much time out there as I can.”



In Madison County

One of the leaders in the partnership between public and private interests is Doug Speight, hunt master and land manager for a 13-member, 2,500-acre hunt club in Madison County.

Speight and his membership have made a considerable commitment to deer management over the last seven years and are employing many of the tools available to them. In consultation with state officials, they have built access roads and 22 ponds, conduct annual controlled burns, plant oats, wheat and corn, and distribute deer-specific proteins and minerals.

The results have been astounding, Speight said.

The average weight of a doe has grown from 90 to 140 pounds, and the average weight of a buck has increased from 140 to 215 pounds.

State biologist Matthew Irvin helped Speight and his members map out the acreage, so when it comes time for improvements, the hunt club knows where they will occur, how much land is involved and how to secure funding.

Outside of deer management, the biggest program Speight is involved in is the controlled burn, which generates modest per-acre reimbursements from the federal natural resources.

In total, the improvements have transformed the Madison County property from a “dry mountain top to a thriving habitat.”

Speight said that process was made possible through an admixture of the club’s goals and its association with state biologists.

“The issue is do you have the commitment and the membership to get it done,” he said. “In terms of the resources you get from the state, it’s invaluable.”

When speaking with other sportsmen, he’s quick to inform them of the state and federal programs and tells them that they’d be wise to use them.

“If you’re object is to have more turkey, quail and deer, then you’re foolish not to,” he said.