"Tales of Old and New"
by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR
There is something mystical about the arrival of fall. Cooler temperatures, leaves changing color, and of course the opening of hunting season marks the beginning of many reflective and habitual routines. Waterfowl are beginning to migrate, bears are gaining fat for their winter sleep, and the white-tailed deer bucks begin their search for mates.
Another animal has migrated into the woods after a long sultry summer and will quickly reengage in its familiar acts. The acts of this two legged creature include walking for hours trying to locate the same tree they sat in last year, driving back to their house after realizing they forgot an imperative piece of equipment, discovering how dark the woods can be without a flashlight, and the most familiar act of sharing great hunting stories with other like individuals.
Working at the refuge visitor center in Saint Charles, I have the opportunity to hear many wonderful hunting stories and tell a few too. My favorite story to tell isn’t about me; rather it is about Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy was on a bear hunt in November of 1902 and after hours of hunting for black bears, Teddy had no luck. His guides were becoming increasingly worried about showing the President of the United States a successful hunt.
Teddy had lain down to rest in his tent when he heard the guides yelling for him to come quick. When Teddy arrived he saw a young bear tied to a tree. His guides had become desperate and while Teddy was sleeping they had found this young bear and tied to a tree so he would be sure to harvest a bear on his trip. Teddy shook his head and released the bear explaining this wasn’t fair chase and he could not shoot this animal. This story later appeared in the Washington Post earning Teddy Roosevelt the reputation as being a great sportsman.
I have told that story dozens of times as it speaks to Teddy Roosevelt’s character, sportsmanship, and a conservation ethic. Recently, I have a new story added to my repertoire to share with visitors that describes the ethics and character of hunters and local residents of Arkansas County.
Last month Marilynn and Sam from the Seattle, Washington area visited the refuge in hopes of seeing “Elvis” (the Ivory Billed Woodpecker). They were armed with birding books, cameras, bug spray and trail maps and were ready to head to the field for their chance of “winning the lottery.”
Before they left I informed them that it was squirrel season and they would most likely hear some shooting and see hunters while they were out in the woods. I explained that squirrel hunting was very popular on the Refuge and they would be wise to stay on the trails as to not have any “negative” encounters in the woods with other user groups.
As a park ranger, I am always concerned with possible conflict between user groups. Since the Refuge Improvement Act of 1997, refuges have been directed to manage for six public uses. These uses are fishing, hunting, wildlife observation, photography, environmental education, and interpretation. The “big six” as they are called, have the potential to impede with each other if users do not respect others rights.
A few days later I was on a conference call when Marilyn and Sam returned to the visitor center and asked to speak with me. I walked into the visitor area not knowing what to expect and Marilyn and Sam said, “There you are. We wanted to talk to you about our trip. We had a great time!”
Marilyn and Sam went on to describe what a great time they had and how wonderful all the local people were. They told me about the friendly people and great catfish dinner they had at the Saint Charles Community store, the wonderful trails they hiked, and over fifty species of birds they saw on the Refuge. They talked about the incredible sunset they watched as they drove along the levy in the South Unit, and eagles, egrets, and herons they saw at Willow Lake.
I told them how happy I was to hear that and then I asked, “So you didn’t have any problems with hunters being in the woods?” Marilyn laughed and said the hunters were wonderful! She told me how she had been walking further along the trail being pulled deeper by every bird sighting and lure of the possible “Elvis” sighting and before she knew it, she was miles from her vehicle and husband. About this time she heard some ATVs coming down the trail.
Marilyn stepped off the trail and the hunters pulled up next to her and introduced themselves and asked where she was from and how her day was going. Then she said “they insisted on giving me a ride back to my vehicle where my husband was waiting.” “The hospitality didn’t stop there,” she said. “They told us they were deacons at a local church and invited us to come to services the next day.”
Marilynn and Sam went to church the next day and were warmly greeted by everyone. After church they were told to try Craig’s barbecue in De Valls Bluff. They said it was the best barbecue they ever had and couldn’t wait to return to the Delta of Arkansas for another trip. They didn’t see the Ivory Billed Woodpecker, but found other treasures in the kindness and hospitality of those living in the area.
I wish I could tell you that all user groups have positive experiences like this one, but the truth is every year we have conflicts with groups competing for the same resource. Whether it is groups wanting to camp during a quota hunt or kayakers using the refuge during waterfowl season, we need to respect the rights of others and demonstrate what it means to be a sportsman. Let us follow in the footsteps of fair play like Teddy Roosevelt and in the tracks of hospitality of ATV riding Arkansas squirrel hunters!