Rabbits, squirrels offer last-chance hunting opportunity

February 5, 2020

By RANDY ZELLERS/AGFC ASSISTANT CHIEF OF COMMUNICATIONS

LITTLE ROCK – Duck season is over, and turkey season is still months away, but hunters looking for one more way to stay in the woods still can find plenty of excitement in small game hunting. Both rabbit and squirrel seasons remain open until 30 minutes after sunset, Feb. 29.

Squirrels and rabbits are still abundant throughout most of Arkansas, and February hunting can prove some of the most predictable for the hunter who goes it alone or with a friend. Nearly all of the leaves and vines have dropped to the ground, making it easier for the hunter to find his target.

Squirrel hunter

Hunters after squirrels should keep an eye on both the ground and the treetops, as most bushytails will be busy seeking the acorns and hickory nuts they stashed during fall. Contrary to popular opinion, squirrels don’t necessarily remember the exact locations they buried their foodstuffs. Instead, they tend to stick to a few areas where they bury or hide their treasure. During winter, they use their keen sense of smell to find acorns and nuts that they and other squirrels have hidden. This frantic scratching and searching gives hunters the ability to hear and see the motion long before the squirrels see them.

Instead of focusing on a few hickory or acorn trees and sitting, late-season hunters are better off staying on the move, quietly slipping through the woods until they cross paths with a squirrel. An accurate .22 rimfire rifle will anchor the animal from long distances as long as the shooter is up to the task.

Rabbit  hunter

Finding rabbits at the tail-end of the season is a bit different. Rabbits will stay put in whatever brushy cover they can find along the edges of fields and ditches. Ditch banks are traditionally a place for rabbit seeking, and here there is a chance for swamp rabbits as well as cottontails. Swampers tend to be a good bit larger than the more numerous cottontails.

With most of the tall grasses dead and trampled down, fewer patches of dense cover will be left for the rabbit to hide. Hunters should walk from brush pile to brush pile, giving each a good kick to flush out any cottontails or swamp rabbits lurking underneath. The shot will come quickly, so hunters should get ready before each brushpile and watch in all directions for the little brown dart that may streak to the next available cover at any given moment. A 12- or 20-gauge shotgun with 6 shot and an improved cylinder choke offers plenty of power to punch through light brush, but still has a wide enough pattern to give the hunter a little leeway when his or her shot is slightly off.

Nearly all Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife management areas are open for rabbit and squirrel hunting, and so are some of the national wildlife refuges in the state. Visit www.agfc.com/wheretohunt to locate a WMA near you and begin your search for the last game of this hunting season.

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AGFC hears 2019 elk, bear harvest reports

January 17, 2020

By RANDY ZELLERS/AGFC Assistant Chief of Communications

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas’s bear and elk harvests showed slight declines during the 2019 season, but biologists with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission said much of the decrease could be attributed to last year’s extremely productive hard mast crop during presentations to Commissioners at today’s regularly scheduled meeting.

According to Myron Means, the AGFC Large Carnivore Program biologist, hunters harvested 432 black bears in Arkansas during 2019.

“Considering the mast crop that we had available across the state, it was actually a pretty good harvest for bears,” Means said. “I didn’t expect it to be quite that high.”

Baited sites and food plots do not have the same appeal to deer, bear, elk and other game species when acorns and other natural foods are abundant in the woods. Animals can find all the food they need without moving long distances, making them much more challenging to hunt. Last year’s bumper crop is likely responsible for decreases in harvest for many species.

The majority, 293 bears total, were harvested with archery equipment, while 57 bears were harvested with muzzleloaders and 82 bears were taken using modern guns.

“That’s nothing new,” Means said. “Most of our bears are taken over bait on private land, and archery hunters get those bears on bait while they are still in pre-hibernation.”

Means says Arkansas bears are still at a stable to slowly expanding population and recommendations going into the 2020 regulations cycle will be to increase the quota of bears allowed in Bear Zone 1 to 500 animals.

Commissioner J.D. Neeley of Camden asked when hunters could expect to see an open bear zone in southwest and south-central Arkansas. Each year more hunters in those areas are reporting bears on their deer leases. Means explained that a current study at the University of Arkansas at Monticello is in its last year of field research to establish a population baseline on bears in those regions of the state and regulations would be based on those findings. The UAM study is being funded by a Wildlife Restoration Program grant through taxes placed on firearms and ammunition sales. 

“They hope to have us a final report in 2021,” Means said. “2022 would be the next regulations cycle to set season dates and quotas.”

Means stressed that if the zones were opened, it would start with a very conservative quota to protect the population from overharvest.

Wes Wright, the AGFC Elk Program coordinator, also gave a summary of the Arkansas elk season. According to Wright, hunters checked 47 elk during two managed hunts in north Arkansas in 2019. The harvest showed a substantial decline in harvest from the 2018 season, specifically in the private land portion of the hunt.

“Last year we had a record harvest of 67 elk, but we had just started a new method for the private land permit system that increased participation on that end,” Wright said. “This year was more in line with historic harvest numbers.”

Despite talk from some hunters about seeing relatively few elk on public land last year, public land harvest numbers remained steady. The total public land harvest actually increased 12 percent, and the overall public land hunter success rate was 63 percent, which is in line with most seasons.

“Again, the heavy mast crop likely dispersed elk and kept them closer to the woods where they are harder to find and harder to hunt,” Wright said.

Wright said only one of the 47 animals harvested was positive for chronic wasting disease, and it was the only CWD-positive elk from the last 114 taken by hunters. A handful of elk that were removed from the herd outside of the season have shown up positive for the disease, but overall only 22 elk have been found that were positive for the disease since it was first spotted in Arkansas in 2016.

“We have had less than 1 percent incidence rate of hunters taking an elk and it being positive for CWD over the past 2 years,” Wright said.

Wright said he plans to propose a slight reduction in the harvest goals next year to compensate for the previous three years of record harvest and additional mortality from CWD sampling to increase numbers of elk on available habitat in north Arkansas.

The Commission voted to continue granting one elk tag each to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation and Arkansas Wildlife Federation to help those organizations’ efforts in raising funding for and awareness of elk conservation in Arkansas. According to Mark Hutchings, AGFC assistant chief of wildlife management, the permits have garnered more than $750,000 for elk management in Arkansas since these grants began.

In other business, the Commission:

  • Approved a funds advance for a cooperative federal grant awarded to the AGFC and Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission totaling $967,590 to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to add 1,108 acres to Longview Saline Natural Area Wildlife Management Area for protection of three endangered species.
  • Approved AGFC Director Pat Fitts to disclaim interest over a 10-acre parcel of land near Petit Jean WMA to which the AGFC holds no title.
  • Recognized AGFC Cpl. Ryan Nast of Batesville as Arkansas’s 2019 National Wild Turkey Federation Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.
  • Recognized Matt Horton, AGFC fisheries habitat biologist from the Mayflower Office, as the 2019 Mike Freeze Fisheries Biologist of the Year.
  • Recognized Jordan Lindaman from the Rogers Field Office as the 2019 Fisheries Division Technical Employee of the Year.
  • Recognized 13 employees representing 280 years of service to the natural resources of Arkansas.
  • Approved the removal of outdated and obsolete inventory with a total original cost of $262,404 and a net book value of $15,944.
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AGFC to hold public meeting on CWD at Batesville

January 22, 2020

By RANDY ZELLERS/ AGFC Assistant Chief of Communications

BATESVILLE — The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission will hold a public meeting to discuss the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease in Independence County at the University of Arkansas Community College, Room 902 of the Nursing and Allied Health Building in Batesville at 6 p.m. Jan. 30. The college is at 2005 White Drive.  

One CWD-positive deer sample has been detected so far in Independence County during the 2019-20 deer season. The deer was illegally harvested and confiscated during an AGFC investigation. Samples were submitted through the AGFC’s normal testing protocol, and positive results were confirmed by two laboratories.

Cory Gray, chief of the AGFC’s Research, Evaluation and Compliance Division, says the meeting is part of the agency’s overall CWD plan to keep the public informed about the disease and give local landowners and hunters an additional chance to have one-on-one communication with the wildlife veterinarian, wildlife health biologist, wildlife biologists and other staff about the disease.

“Hunters are our greatest ally in helping manage this disease, and we want to walk this path with them and discuss concerns they may have about CWD,” Gray said. “With the recent positive case of CWD found in Independence County, we hope this meeting will gather support for additional sampling opportunities to further our knowledge of this disease.”

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