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Where the ducks are

Duck Stamps and collaborative conservation turn Cache River NWR into a haven for hunters

Augusta, Arkansas - On a clear January evening at Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, the sun soothed the sky into a pink glow. The mass of ducks quacking sounded like laughter, as they dropped into the sunlit forest that lined both sides of the refuge.

Without the protected wetlands along the river, there would be no ducks. The thought is hard to imagine, considering duck hunting is so ingrained in the culture that duck blinds are like an inheritance. One Cache River hunter, Jerry Billy Pendergist, has hunted in the same blind for the past 65 years, the same blind where his father also hunted.

The Cache and lower White River floodplains are considered the most important wintering ground for mallards in North America according to the North American Waterfowl Management Plan.

In the 1930s waterfowl populations across the country reached dangerously low numbers. In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Duck Stamp Act to preserve wetlands. Since then, 98 cents out of every dollar used to purchase Duck Stamps has gone toward waterfowl conservation. In the past 80 years, the program has raised $800 million to purchase more than 5 million acres of waterfowl habitat. Cache River National Wildlife Refuge used Duck Stamp funds to buy over 50,000 acres, approximately 70% of the refuge.

Thirty-eight years after passage of the Duck Stamp Act, a group of duck hunters worked with conservationists in an effort led by Dr. Rex Hancock to block plans to dredge and channelize the Cache River. Environmentalists argued that dredging the river would destroy one of the most critical feeding grounds for migratory birds and other native wildlife. In 1978, Congress stopped funding for dredging the river to do environmental impact studies. As a result, in 1986, the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge was established. Today, many Arkansans revere Dr. Hancock’s name, and the majority of the Cache remains unchannelized.

The natural hydrology creates forested wetlands that waterfowl depend on for survival during their long migration. Approximately 20% of the native bottomland hardwood forest remains in the Cache River watershed. Through collective efforts with partners, the Service added 23,000 acres of re-forested lands since the refuge’s formation. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with The Nature Conservancy and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission to acquire 948 acres of marginally productive farmland prone to flooding. Together, the Service and the state added 1,282 acres for waterfowl conservation.

The partners then planted between 300-450 native bottomland hardwood trees per acre. Landowners also benefited, because they repurporsed the unproductive farmland into a wetland easement, which means the land will be conserved in perpetuity.

“Our objectives are in concert with each other, so we were all able to steward them through the process,” said Jason Milks of the Nature Conservancy. “They ultimately got what they wanted for the property, the state benefited, and conservation benefited. It was a win, win, win all around.”

Through another partnership with Ducks Unlimited, the refuge enhanced habitat conditions on a waterfowl sanctuary with six waterfowl impoundments. Ducks Unlimited used its easement program, which provided $1 million for each grant to match funding from the North American Waterfowl Conservation Act. The sanctuaries provide a much needed rest area for ducks to feed, preen their feathers, look for a mate, and build strength to continue their migratory journey to the Gulf of Mexico. The area is closed to the public during the winter to protect the waterfowl.

Together, the Central Arkansas Refuge Complex (comprised of Cache River, Bald Knob, Wapanocca, Big Lake, Logan Cave, and Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuges) and The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission provides a network of lands with many food sources for waterfowl. Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest farming co-ops in the National Wildlife Refuge system, contains 4,500 acres of productive farmland. The farmers keep 75% of the crops, and 25% remains in the field for waterfowl foraging, which provides critical nutrition for waterfowl to survive harsh winters.

Adjacent to Bald Knob NWR, Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area maintains additional waterfowl habitat, creating a network of waterfowl habitat totaling approximately 30,000 acres.

These lands form an impressive network of habitat that ducks need to survive. About 95% of the refuge is open to the public for bird watching, hunting, fishing, wildlife education and photography.

“This is a very important public treasure because people can come here, and it’s open to hunting free of charge,” said Keith Weaver, Project Leader at the Service’s Central Arkansas National Wildlife Refuge Complex. “We have environmental education and interpretive programs that also occur on these lands. Those are very important to the wildlife refuge system, and important to the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge, and it’s one of the reasons that we’re so supported by the public.”

Public support plays a key role in making Cache River an internationally important wetland. After all, approximately 70 percent of the refuge was acquired with funding made possible by duck hunters, stamp collectors and other when they buy duck stamps each year.

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