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Arkansas agency seeks dismissal of duck-blind lawsuit

October 19, 2012 at 10:38 PM

The Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has asked a circuit court judge to throw out a lawsuit filed against it by a local group that wants to prevent the agency’s removing private duck blinds from public lands.

It’s a controversial move that has many in the duck-hunting community in an uproar. Some of the blinds have been in place more than 60 years, according to documents.

A motion filed Monday in Harrisburg asks Circuit Judge Randy Philhours to dismiss the suit filed by the St. Francis Lake Association. Poinsett County isn’t the proper venue and doesn’t have jurisdiction in the case, the AGFC argued in court documents.

“Blind removal on Big Lake and St. Francis Sunken Lands WMAs by the AGFC was to begin Oct. 15,” Commission public information coordinator Keith Stephens told The Sun. “Last week the judge in the case issued a temporary stay halting the planned removal until further notice.”

No blinds have been removed by the AGFC, Stephens said.

Philhours could possibly rule on the motion as early as next week. Michelle Grilletta, trial court assistant for the judge, said her office is working on setting a court hearing in the matter.

The hearing is tentatively set for Oct. 24 or Nov. 2 with a location yet to be determined.

If Philhours dismisses the suit, it could likely be brought back to court in Pulaski County. According to state court precedent, court cases involving state agencies including AGFC are heard in Little Rock.

The debate over the issue has been discussed by hunters, fishermen and Game and Fish Commission members since mid-2011.

A series of hearings was held in the region in fall 2011 about the policy change.

However, controversy erupted in August when state Game and Fish Commissioners voted to set an Oct. 15 deadline to remove permanent duck blinds used by hunters at the Dave Donaldson Black River Management Area in Clay and Randolph counties, Big Lake National Wildlife Area near Manila and the St. Francis Sunken Lands Management Area in Poinsett County.

At a Sept. 6, 2011 meeting in Corning, David Goad, chief of the agency’s Wildlife Division, said the policy was needed due to abuses.

“In the past, people could clear out the area. (The) policy was originally done by a director’s administrative regulation,” Goad said at the time. “But people were cutting down trees to make holes bigger. They were also spraying herbicide there.”

Officials also said at the meeting that hunters were using 4-wheelers to ride through fields, leaving ruts in the land.

However, a Trumann man said Wednesday the policy change would hurt hunting opportunities and many years of tradition.

“This is not as much about duck blinds, as it is tradition,” said Bobby Benson, president of the St. Francis Lake Association. Benson said he has spoken to several elected officials about the policy change.

“The elected officials want it (the blinds) to stay,” Benson said.

Benson said many in his group were surprised that the seven-member commission, appointed by the governor, is autonomous.

“There was an (legislative) oversight committee meeting last year in Little Rock. There were 100 hunters and fishermen and 20 (state) House and Senate members there. The committee asked them questions. They did it anyway and it rubbed me wrong,” Benson said.

Benson said hunting is an opportunity for people with different economic means to have fun.

“It is the last place where an old poor boy could hunt in comfort,” Benson said. “Duck hunting has really priced itself out in recent years. Most of the people who go here are factory workers. It is a tradition worth saving, and I have no ill feeling against the Game and Fish Commission.”

Benson also said he believes a solution can be found in the controversy.

“I feel like changes (in the policy) could be made, be equitable for all concerned. But to tear down (the blinds) is the wrong thing to do,” Benson said.


Information from: The Jonesboro Sun,

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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