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Payments to Arkansas rice farmers for waterfowl habitat and hunting access

LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is accepting applications from rice field owners to enroll in its expanded Waterfowl Rice Incentive Conservation Enhancement program. Landowners may receive as much as $150 per acre annually while still maintaining the current production of rice fields by following post-harvest guidelines and allowing permit-based hunts during waterfowl season on their properties. The program is aimed at enrolling rice fields within 10 miles of many AGFC wildlife management areas popular with duck hunters.

Now in its third year, the AGFC’s WRICE program has been awarded a grant from the National Resources Conservation Service’s Voluntary Public Access and Habitat Incentive Program. The grant will boost the program to the tune of $2.1 million, distributed during the next three years to participating landowners.

“The first year, we focused on paying landowners to leave the waste rice in the fields instead of tilling before spring and flooding the land to make that food more available to waterfowl,” said Luke Naylor, waterfowl program coordinator for the AGFC. “Last year, we added the public access requirement to the program and still saw great interest from landowners. This grant will let us expand that opportunity for landowners and hunters even more.”

Naylor says landowners with land already enrolled in Wetland Reserve Program easements also can apply for some of these funds if they are willing to allow public access for hunting and wildlife-viewing on their property.

The program’s main goal is focused on increasing waterfowl resources on rice fields, a critical component of Arkansas’s rich duck-hunting history. According to recent research, only about 20 percent of the 2 million acres of harvested rice fields in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley are flooded each year, and fall tillage appears to be on the increase in many parts of Arkansas. “Getting farmers to suspend fall tillage and flood more of those fields could have a major impact on realized waterfowl food values,” Naylor said.

“Interested landowners will work with us to provide improved waterfowl habitat and public hunting opportunities on their fields through a managed draw system,” Naylor said. “The hunts are highly controlled, and hunters have shown incredible respect for this great new opportunity. We hope to expand from last year’s 941 acres of huntable WRICE fields to 3,750 acres this year.”

Landowners interested in becoming part of this innovative conservation and hunter access program can visit www.agfc.com/wrice or contact their local private lands biologist through the website www.agfc.com/habitat to learn more. AGFC staff will host an informational webinar at 6 p.m. May 28. See www.agfc.com/wrice for details.