JONESBORO — The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission heard a presentation at today’s scheduled meeting about the upcoming restoration of Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, culminating a two-day agenda focused on updates planned for facilities in northeast Arkansas in the near future.

Dave Donaldson WMA covers roughly 36.7 square miles of forested landscape in northeast Arkansas that provides critical winter habitat for waterfowl and many migratory bird species as well as year-round habitat for a host of resident wildlife, including white-tailed deer, squirrels, rabbits and a robust nongame wildlife population. The area is one of Arkansas’s premier duck hunting destinations with an intricate system of levees and water-control structures designed to provide huntable water in winter. Since that time, changes to the AGFC’s water-management strategy to ensure long-term health of the bottomlands hardwoods has facilitated the need for change.

AGFC Chief of Wildlife Management Luke Naylor presented an overview of the survey work and hydrological modeling conducted over the last two years in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited and outside contractors to determine what structures need to be improved or removed to increase the area’s ability to drain when allowed by the Black River to improve forest health on the area.

“Historically, many of the structures have been trying to fight the water, and water always wins,” Naylor explained. “These modifications will work with what nature already wants to do to offer waterfowl habitat in a sustainable way for our bottomland hardwoods.”

Armed with the new models and knowledge, the AGFC has been working with outside contractors to design plans for engineers. Those plans are expected to be complete in 2024. Construction is expected to begin in 2025 and should take roughly five years, pending weather and site conditions.

Naylor and AGFC Director Austin Booth stressed that the area would not see large-scale closures during waterfowl seasons during the construction.

“The Black River is still going to flood, there’s no stopping that,” Naylor said. “Just like we saw last year at Henry Gray Hurricane Lake WMA with all structures removed. That water is going to pulse in and flood it, and the ducks and hunters will find it. Our design is focused on reducing only the artificial flooding capacity and increasing drainage of the area to make sure the bottomland hardwood forest is sustained in the long-term.”

Chairman Stan Jones noted his appreciation for the staff and design that has been in place and for the suggested improvements.

“Dave Donaldson was a brilliant man who was 50 years ahead of his time,” Jones said. “We would have done the same sort of work he did even 15 years ago, but now that we have new knowledge of how these systems work, it’s exciting to see the work that is going to be done to make sure this area remains a great place to hunt for maybe another 100 years. I know it’s taking some time, but we want to do it right and I have complete confidence that we’re going to do it right. This is not just for today and tomorrow, but for generations down the road.”

A local hunter, Dr. Hetal Patel, spoke to the Commission about the amazing transformation she and her entire family have undergone thanks to the work of staff at the AGFC’s Forrest L. Wood Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center. Patel was introduced to the outdoors this summer, thanks to many of the programs offered by the AGFC. She has already been able to harvest small game and white-tailed deer and has introduced fishing and hunting to other members of her family, including her three children. She explained that although a few opportunities to begin hunting or angling had been available to her when she was younger, the programs offered through AGFC were specialized to be welcoming to newcomers and ultimately led to this new passion she can share with family and friends. Dr. Patel donated two checks to the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation in appreciation of her journey. The first check of $1,250 will be earmarked for Becoming an Outdoors-Woman events in Northeast Arkansas, and a second $1,250 check will be directed toward youth hunting education efforts in Northeast Arkansas.

Jonesboro Mayor Harold Copenhaver offered an update on the AGFC’s partnership with the City of Jonesboro to build the Jonesboro Shooting Sports Complex in 2021. The Complex has nine trap fields, three skeet fields, rifle and handgun shooting ranges and an extensive 3D archery range. It supports many recreational shooters, including nine local teams in the AGFC’s Youth Shooting Sports Program. He concluded his presentation with a request to continue this partnership with additional opportunities to expand the range in the future.

“Many of us who live in rural areas can take it for granted that we can just go to some of our property or a friend’s property and sight in a rifle, but many people in cities like Jonesboro don’t have that opportunity,” Commission Chairman Stan Jones said. “Ranges like this are so critical to people who don’t have access to property to learn safe firearms handling and to get ready for hunting seasons.”

In his monthly report to the Commission, Booth took a moment to thank all AGFC staff for their continued work, with a particular emphasis on the agency’s Enforcement and Licensing divisions.

“For our Enforcement Division and all the men and women who place themselves in the line of duty, November is when our Superbowl starts,” Booth said. “Right now while everyone is hunting and fishing, they are outside working and leaving their families at home while they’re doing it.”

The agency’s Licensing Division has spent many weekends and nights to ensure deer were checked and hunters were able to purchase their licenses through the AGFC’s newly updated system.

Booth also praised one particular employee, Dr. Chris Middaugh in the AGFC’s Research Division. In addition to his valuable contributions to research being conducted on forestry, wildlife and fisheries work throughout the agency, Middaugh recently stepped up to temporarily fill the role of the agency’s competitive grants coordinator to help procure money for future projects.

“Through his efforts working throughout the agency, but again taking that initiative to take a job that needed to be done that he didn’t have to do; through his initiative the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was awarded $5.4 million in competitive grants through America the Beautiful,” Booth said.

The Commission also unanimously approved a budget increase of $1.5 million to the Private Land Habitat Division to be used for the upcoming Landowner Conservation Incentive Program. The program, which will be officially announced soon, will provide reimbursement for landowners who voluntarily conduct certain wildlife and fisheries management practices, similar to some Farm Bill programs offered by the Natural Resources Conservation Service. $3.5 million will be offered to landowners in 2024, with the portion authorized today to be used before the end of the Fiscal Year in June. The additional $2 million is expected to be authorized in Fiscal Year 2025. The money for this program was requested from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration in September and approved by the peer committee of Arkansas Legislative Council in October.

In other business, the Commission:

  • Heard a presentation from AGFC Fisheries Chief Tommy Laird on Lake Ashbaugh and the recent installation of two additional deep-water wells to help alleviate some of the seepage experienced in the lake as well as an update that contractors are onsite to determine possible long-term solutions to maintain this valuable waterfowl rest area and fishing area in the future.
  • Heard from Jerry Morgan of Lynn, about his experiences at Shirey Bay Rainey Brake WMA throughout his lifetime and the continued improvement and popularity of that area.
  • Heard from Rector resident and former school superintendent Kelly Scobey about his experiences at Dave Donaldson Black River WMA throughout his lifetime and the WMA’s fame over the decades.
  • Recognized two employees with a combined 45 years of experience conserving the natural resources of Arkansas and serving outdoors enthusiasts in The Natural State.
  • Authorized the purchase of three fiberglass boats for the Trout Management Program. Commissioner Rob Finley recused himself from the discussion and vote on the purchase because of his partial ownership of the company who won the sealed bid process. The request for bids was submitted twice and the vendor chosen was the only company to submit a bid during either submission process.

A recording of the meeting is available on the AGFC’s YouTube channel at