ARKADELPHIA – Wildlife officers from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission joined 34 fire boat crews from Arkansas, Texas and Missouri, Friday and Saturday for the annual Arkansas Fire Boat School at DeGray Lake and the Caddo River.

More than 30 enforcement staff from the AGFC served as instructors for the event, which included 338 total attendees, 45 fire boats and a rescue helicopter.

This is the 13th year for the special training event, which hosts a variety of staged emergency scenarios fire boat teams are likely to encounter during the course of their job duties.

"We try to incorporate lifelike emergency situations based on real events that have happened in Arkansas," said Adriane Barnes, director of communications for the Arkansas Agriculture Department. "Scenarios usually include an array of simulated incidents including a wildfire response, defensive boat operations, medical scenarios with live victims and oftentimes live fire, as well as scenarios mixed with unique challenges like a sinking boat or a wrecked plane."

Capt. Greg Rae with the AGFC says the school began as a way for agencies to work together more efficiently during a crisis situation to make sure emergencies were handled while preserving evidence.

"Many volunteer fire departments would do an excellent job of putting out a fire or rescuing someone from the water, but would unknowingly move boat controls or throttles that were essential in our investigations after the incident occurred," Rae said. "For us, the school started as a way to teach what sort of evidence we needed them to preserve, but has enabled us to teach them much more about things like locating areas using GPS systems and handling their boats defensively during emergency situations."

The school has grown over the years to incorporate more situations first responders on the water may face. This year’s event was split into two sections: large-water scenarios held on DeGray Lake and small boat operations on the Caddo River.

"We had such a demand for smaller boat training that we expanded the event several years ago to include scenarios specifically designed for the operation of smaller vessels on small Arkansas rivers and streams," Barnes said. "It’s a totally different animal from rescues and fire operations on larger lakes."

Barnes says many of the crews attending the school are from volunteer fire departments and have to travel on their own dime to attend the training. But getting firsthand experience dealing with some of the scenarios may mean the difference between a successful rescue and tragedy.

"Each training scenario is put together and overseen by an agency or group with specialized knowledge on the subject," Barnes said. "The Arkansas Forestry Commission designs a wildfire incident, the AGFC creates a serpentine course each year to address boat maneuvering and vessel operator skills, Air Evac and LifeNet Helicopter teams work with medical personnel to simulate emergency scenes including live victims, and a host of fire departments provide input and organize incidents that may mimic a plane crash, a sinking boat, boat wreck or other water emergency."

Rae says the training is extremely valuable to the volunteers as well as the instructors.

"It really has built a relationship between us and volunteer fire department first responders, Rae said. "Everyone is able to work as a unit much more efficiently. We know their roles and they know what we need from them. This year we even had our communications supervisor and five other full-time 911 operators from other agencies to give participants the exact feel as though they were communicating with real dispatchers during the exercises."

Once the staged scenarios have played out, participants are evaluated on their performance and allowed to give feedback about the scenarios, so that all involved can walk away better prepared for an emergency in real life.

"First responders should constantly look for ways to improve the next program and teach valuable skills to those attending the training. We want people to leave the school better prepared for the situations they may face in the real world, so they can make the right decisions during those times when every second counts."

Bass earn prison release dates

PENDLETON – Hundreds of thousands of largemouth bass fingerlings will be paroled from Cummins Correctional Facility at this year’s Big Bass Bonanza, June 24-26. These fingerlings are the result of an ongoing partnership between the Arkansas Department of Corrections, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas anglers.

Each year, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission works with tournament anglers to collect mature largemouth bass from the Dumas pool of the river during spring tournament weigh-ins.

"This year we collected our brood fish from a weigh-in of the Dumas Bass Club," said JJ Gladden, biologist at the AGFC’s Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery. "In some years we may work with a few clubs to get the fish we need because of weather or poor fishing conditions, but we got enough at the first tournament this year to supply what we needed.

The bass are transported to the Cummins Unit of the Arkansas Department of Corrections and placed in ponds once planned for raising catfish.

"Roughly 200 bass are stocked into the ponds," said JJ Gladden, biologist at the AGFC’s Joe Hogan State Fish Hatchery in Lonoke. "Our goal is to get about 200,000 fingerlings out of that."

Colton Dennis, Black Bass Program coordinator for the AGFC says the partnership has produced more than 1 million largemouth fingerlings for the Arkansas River since its creation in 2001.

"Five of the 15 years suffered no measurable production because the river rose into the ponds before we could get the fingerlings out," Dennis said. Once ready, 100,000 fingerlings are seined from the ponds using inmate labor supervised by AGFC hatchery crews. The fish are loaded onto hatchery trucks and delivered to weigh-in sites for the Arkansas Big Bass Bonanza.

"Twenty-thousand fingerlings go to each weigh-in location," Gladden said. "As anglers come in to weigh their fish hourly, we give them bags of fingerlings to stock on their return trip."

Dennis says the boat-side releases by anglers not only allows them to be part of the process, but increases the effectiveness of the stocking effort.

"They’re spreading out and placing the fingerlings in the backwaters and areas they fish," Dennis said. "It’s going to be more favorable habitat than if we backed up a truck at a ramp and released thousands into an area with less complex habitat, less vegetation and more current to fight."

Dennis says the last four years fingerlings were available from the ponds, nearly 373,000 bass were stocked by volunteer anglers through the tournament. The additional fingerlings left in the ponds after seining were released directly into the Dumas pool of the river through the pond’s drainage pipe.

"There are usually 100,000 or more fingerlings left in the pond that go right back into the pool of river the brood stock came from," said Gladden.

Stocking bass is not always the answer to improving a fishery, but in the case of the Arkansas River, Dennis says the stockings do make an impact.

"The river has seen a dramatic decline in backwater spawning and nursery habitat the last few decades because of siltation," Dennis said. "That, coupled with years when the river experiences high flows and flooding during spring when bass are trying to spawn, make programs such as this very important. A study conducted for us by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff showed that stocked fingerlings contributed between 10 and 15 percent to the wild population in the river."

Bald eagle recovery recognized June 20

LITTLE ROCK – June 20 marks a special day for the American bald eagle. In Arkansas and nearly every other state, thanks to the American Eagle Foundation’s work with Congress and state legislatures, it’s now recognized as American Eagle Day, and the date is significant for being the same day in 1782 that America’s founding fathers affixed the image of the bald eagle to the Great Seal of the United States.

Coincidentally, June 20 is usually when the number of fledgling bald eagles from each year’s hatch are at their peak in the Arkansas outdoors, according to Karen Rowe, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission nongame migratory bird program coordinator.

That day, "they will be up and flying, and the state’s resident eagle population will be at its highest," Rowe said. The bald eagle is one of the great success stories of the federal Endangered Species Act, but it still lives a precarious life in the wild from the moment of birth.

Rowe says 70 to 80 percent of bald eagles do not survive their first year. Lead poisoning, electrocution and collisions with electric transmission lines and vehicles are chief causes of fledgling deaths. The survival rate improves in year two, though 30 to 40 percent of the remaining population will die. However, by the time an American bald eagle reaches three or four, Rowe says the odds are high it will live 10 or 15 years.

And that is a far cry better from where America’s symbol stood in the 1960s, when the estimate of nesting pairs nationally fell below 500 and it was placed on the federal Endangered Species list. In the 1960-70s, nesting bald eagles were absent in Arkansas, Rowe said. Protection of eagles through laws dealing with the use of the pesticide DDT, cutting out lead shot in waterfowl hunting and other measures helped turn around the eagle plight to where by 2007, eagles were no longer classified as "endangered." Eagles now are estimated to number 13,000-14,000 pairs nationwide.

An actual count of eagles is no longer taken these days, simply because when eagles were no longer listed as "endangered," Arkansas lost its federal funding to conduct surveys. Arkansas’s eagle population hit an important milestone in 1983 when the first eagle nest in the state since the 1950s was found on the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge. Several years later the state totaled 10 nests. By 2008, the last count in the state, Arkansas was home to 146 eagle nests. The federal Endangered Species Act Recovery goal for Arkansas was 10 pairs of nesting bald eagles.

"I think it’s safe to say bald eagles nesting in Arkansas have greatly exceeded that original goal," Rowe said.

Rowe says biologists aren’t sure what initially brought the eagle nests back to Arkansas in the 1980s, as eagles generally nest close to where they were fledged.

"Maybe there was something historical, something in their genetic makeup to know where to go," Rowe said. "Or maybe after the protection of the bird began, a pair of bald eagles found that the Dale Bumpers White River National Refuge was an ideal area to nest, which was the first for Arkansas."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a proclamation in April making Arkansas among 47 states to recognize American Bald Eagle Day on June 20. The day helps bring attention to the eagles’ recovery, but it also spells out that more must be done to sustain the species. The bald eagle and golden eagle remain under federal protection law enacted in 1940 and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The AGFC will be meeting in June to approve several measures, one of which will be strengthening state regulations and penalties to the federal level for harassing or harming a bald or golden eagle.

There are other threats, Rowe says. Although the ban on DDT nearly a half-century ago was instrumental in saving the eagle, new, stronger rodent poisons are being used and are lethal to eagles which eat the poisoned rodent.

Eagle Watch weekends are now a regular and popular part of Arkansas state parks’ winter schedules, and waterfowl hunters now take note of the many opportunistic eagles following the migration of ducks and other birds in the fall. Eagles are tied to natural water bodies, such as the rivers or the hardwood swamps of the Delta, but also are found in good numbers around DeGray Lake, Lake Ouachita or Beaver Lake, Rowe said. The numbers swell late in the year.

"As the ponds freeze up in the north, we get eagles from northern states such as Michigan, Minnesota, and from Canada that come through Arkansas," said Rowe, who is based out of the AGFC office at Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area.

Poor shots in the duck blind can be an eagle’s best friends.

"I’ve watched eagles over Hallowell Reservoir. I know there is an eagle hunting over Halowell because the duck flocks suddenly take flight. All of a sudden the eagle will swoop down, he will have found himself a cripple."

Juvenile bald eagles often are mistaken for golden eagles because "they do not develop the white on their heads and tail until they are four," she said.

Then, bald eagles look like the recognizable symbol of the United States, and they also begin their nesting at that age. And, thanks to conscientious efforts by many organizations including the AGFC, they are prolific to their native habitat again.

Rowe hopes the same success in restoring the eagle population in Arkansas will be seen in such birds as the northern bobwhite and King Rail, a rare species found in marshy wetlands.

Haying pasture with eye for wildlife

LITTLE ROCK – With all the spring rains, most landowners are ready to hit the field to cut hay. There are a few things to consider this year before you get on that tractor.

Nothing changes the landscaping of your property overnight like hay-cutting your fields. A hay-cutting operation can transform a field’s wildlife use almost overnight, usually not for the better. With a little extra planning, you can minimize the disturbance to wildlife while still realizing profit from your hayfields.

Ted Zawislak, statewide private lands supervisor for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, says timing hay-cutting operations to avoid nesting season is an excellent start if possible.

"Try to delay haying until July 15 or later if you can," Zawislak said. "This will allow ground-nesting birds time to hatch their broods."

Cutting a little higher on the stem also can save quite a few nests and ground-dwelling wildlife. Terrapins and small mammals can be spared from the mower blades by simply raising the deck of the mower 4 inches above ground level. Installing Plexiglas around the leading edge and sides of a mower also can prevent wildlife from being drawn into mower blades.

Flushing bars also can save many grassland critters from the dangerous blades of a haybine or sickle bar mower. You can make a flushing bar by hanging 28 inch lengths of chain about 2 feet apart on a 10-foot section of angle iron mounted to the front of your tractor. The chains should be long enough to ride just above the surface of the ground. The first chain should be located 36 inches from the tractor frame. This method has been shown to effectively scare wildlife such as rabbits, turkeys, and some fawns away before they are hit by the hay cutter.

Zawislak says one way to help wildlife escape the mower and baler is to work from the inside out. Just as prescribed burns don’t completely surround an area until the last possible moment, you want to allow animals as much time to escape as possible.

"Begin cutting in the middle and move to outer borders if possible," Zawislak said. "This allows young and adult wildlife to stay in existing cover and not become trapped inside an ever-decreasing circle."

Once you get to the edge of the property, leave a little wild edge along the sides to give displaced wildlife a little shelter from predation. An uncut 30-foot or wider strip of hay around the outside of a field offers food, nesting, escape and brood cover for wildlife. Try to make the borders irregular shapes to prevent predators from keying in on a turkey or quail dinner.

"You can come back later in fall after nesting is not an issue and bush hog that 30-foot strip," Zawislak said.

Hay-cutting has some long-term positives for the landscape such as removing competition so the grass stand does not get too thick, however it’s the short term effects, primarily during nesting, can be detrimental to wildlife. Hopefully, these few easy steps can make a landowner’s next hay-cutting operation more wildlife friendly.

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