Expand Public Hunting in Arkansas
Proposal for refuge expansion scrapped
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Tuesday dropped plans to gradually purchase land to nearly double the size of the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Arkansas.
The Fish and Wildlife Service considers the White River Refuge to be one of the most important places for wintering waterfowl in North America. It is also home to the only native black bear population in the state. The plans would have expanded the refuge's "acquisition area," specifying what land the federal government wanted to purchase from willing owners.
The 160,756-acre refuge was established in 1935 to protect ducks, geese and other migratory birds. It was renamed for Bumpers, a former Arkansas governor and U.S. senator, in April. The refuge stretches from U.S. 79 near Clarendon south nearly to Arkansas 1 and Dumas in Desha County.
The agency had proposed adding another 125,349 acres to the acquisition boundary in the area surrounding the refuge and south to the mouth of the Arkansas River at the Mississippi River.
People who own land within the expanded acquisition area could have chosen to sell to the government, but sales would've been optional. Funds to purchase the land would have come from the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund and the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
David Viker, Southeast regional chief of the National Wildlife Refuge System, said by phone that there wasn't enough money or local support to justify moving forward, especially when the government is working to expand the Cache River and Felsenthal National Wildlife refuges in Arkansas.
He said nearly half of the land near the White River Refuge is owned by Anderson Tully Lumber Co. and rented to hunting clubs, whose members were vocal about wanting ownership of the land to remain private.
"We didn't want to set up false expectations, and we listened to the public," Viker said. "If budgets hadn't reduced and we had overwhelming support, we probably would have gone forward."
He said it could be decades before the agency has bought up the hundreds of acres of land within the acquisition areas of the Cache River Refuge, near Cotton Plant, and the Felsenthal Refuge, near Crossett.
"We just have so much other work, it just didn't make sense to pursue the White River expansion and set up expectations," Viker said. "Had we gone forward and expanded the boundaries, there would have been some expectation that we would start to do work and purchase lands when in that state alone there's so much more work to be done."
Viker said it will likely be a long time before the agency considers the White River Refuge expansion again.
"It would be the distant future. If we got support from the public in coming years we would reconsider it, but not for some time," he said.
David Carruth, the former president of Arkansas Wildlife Federation and who lives in Clarendon, said it is disappointing that the Fish and Wildlife Service backed away from the expansion.
Although hunting in a refuge can be more restrictive than on private land, not everyone can afford to rent private land or join a hunting club, he said.
"I'm a little disappointed because there's that much less public land available to hunt," he said. "I guess the politics were just too much because it makes all the sense in the world for that to be [a] refuge."