POINSETT COUNTY, AR (KAIT) – The fight to save permanent duck blinds on three wildlife management areas in northeast Arkansas appears to be over. Last month a judge ruled in favor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in a class action lawsuit filed by several hunters in northeast Arkansas. According to court documents, Pulaski County Judge Jay Moody granted a motion to dismiss the case in part, while rejecting the motion in part.
The ruling means 21 hunters (St. Francis Lake Association), who filed a class action lawsuit against Game and Fish and AGFC Director Mike Knoedl, will not be compensated for any monetary losses sustained from removal of duck blinds on the St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area (WMA), Big Lake WMA and the Dave Donaldson Black River WMAs. The ruling also gives Game and Fish the authority to continue removing permanent blinds. Click here to read Judge Moody's ruling.
Game and Fish released a statement to Region 8 News in response to the ruling.
"We are pleased with the progress we've made toward dismissal of the case and toward ending the privatization of public land. Judge Jay Moody reviewed the AGFC's motion to dismiss the case. He informed the parties through a June 6 letter that he intends to enter an order that grants part of the motion and denies part of the motion. The judge's letter indicates that the plaintiffs' request to stop the AGFC from removing the blinds will not be granted. The letter also states the plaintiffs will not receive damages for the blinds. The judge requested that the AGFC, as the prevailing party, prepare the official order to be filed with the Pulaski Circuit Court clerk. Two previous lawsuits concerning removal of the blinds have been dismissed."
Game and Fish reported in 2011 that most Arkansans support the removal of duck blinds on public lands. Click here to read the news release from AGFC. You can read more about the lawsuit below.
After being contacted by multiple hunters, Region 8 News discovered most duck blinds have been destroyed; but, much of the debris still floats in the water. We found multiple boards, tar shingles, nails and other debris in the river around the blinds. Some longtime hunters want to know why the blinds were destroyed and left to sit in the river.
"I know these duck blinds up and down the river have tar paper on them. Some of them have roof shingles. Some of them have propane bottles that may have been left in them. Just for the danger of it, there is wire, nails, spikes. You see, we couldn't even walk and hunt, or wade and hunt or even get here with a boat," said Curt Seymore, who has been hunting on the St. Francis River for 53 years. "This is just going to be a junk pile. We're going to have a junk pile where we used to have a beautiful duck hunting place."
Seymore, who is not part of the class action lawsuit against AGFC, said he's spent thousands of dollars maintaining a blind he has no problem sharing with others. He said other hunters threatened other people for hunting in "their" blinds.
"Hunters up and down the river are just like we were. Maintaining a duck blind became a part of life. In the summer, that's what you did," said Seymore, who expressed his disdain for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commissioners.
"Now you can't stand or put a boat in here where you used to hunt out of a blind, all of that, I've gone through the year or so battle of fighting for the duck blinds without being able to save them, but now they're gone. It just makes you sick."
Region 8 News requested information about the blind removal, which could take another several months. According to Jeremy Brown, biologist and Sunken Lands Area Manager, crews are removing hazardous materials, such as propane tanks and paint cans, as quickly and safely as possible. He said most of the hazardous materials removed were beer cans and glass bottles, along with other household trash. He said crews will remove everything once the river levels of the St. Francis drop.
There are still 26 blinds along river channels that the Arkansas Land Commissioner has to approve before they can be removed.
AGFC is also draining water on Big Lake. Once that is done, Brown said crews can quickly remove 92 blinds within about two weeks.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, in a memo to Knoedl dated May 7, 2013, gave permission to AGFC to burn blinds on Big Lake and the Sunken Lands. ADEQ gave AGFC permission to burn blinds on weekends, and must allow ADEQ personnel to be present during open burning. Read the memo here.
According to Katherine Benanti with ADEQ, inspectors are not required to be on site during open burning, nor have inspectors been on site, as of Monday, July 8.
Benanti told Region 8 News ADEQ personnel may still inspect sites in the future.
According to information gathered from AGFC, a majority of hunters did not take action to remove duck blinds when they were directed to do so. Assistant Chief of Communications Keith Stephens told Region 8 News out of 182 blind locations on the Sunken Lands, only 30 got permits to remove personal property at 22 locations. On Big Lake, Game and Fish said out of 107 locations, 45 people removed property from 39 locations.
2011 – AGFC Director Loren Hitchcock stops manipulation and habitat access on Big Lake, Sunken Lands and Dave Donaldson Black River WMAs
August, 2012 – AGFC approves permanent duck blind removal plan in scheduled monthly meeting.
August 30 – October 14, 2012 – Hunters with permits allowed to remove blinds and personal property.
October 15, 2012 – AGFC begins removing permanent blinds.
2012-2013 Waterfowl hunting season – Permanent blinds banned from use.
March 12, 2013 – Class action lawsuit filed by St. Francis Lake Association against AGFC.
June 17, 2013 – Judge Jay Moody grants motion to dismiss in part, denies motion to dismiss in part.
While the main part of the lawsuit will be dismissed, the St. Francis Lake Association can still fight part of the suit. Judge Moody rejected AGFC's motion to dismiss "for failure to plead facts sufficient to support a claim for a violation of Amendment 88."
Amendment 88 of the Arkansas Constitution gives citizens of Arkansas a legal right to hunt and fish on public lands consistent with Amendment 35, which established the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission as manager of wildlife assets.
Click here to read more about Amendment 88.
The SFLA can sue under Amendment 88. The organization can also proceed with part of the suit, which claims the AGFC violated the Administrative Procedures Act. Read more about the APA here.