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Arkansas Game and Fish Commission applauds accomplishments at Bennie Westphal’s final meeting

Thursday’s Arkansas Game and Fish Commission meeting concluded one of the busiest years in recent history, with many accomplishments highlighted in AGFC Director Austin Booth’s report.

Booth reflected on his first year leading and working alongside staff, volunteers and the many other Arkansans who make the AGFC’s efforts possible. 

“2022 was quite a year for the agency,” Booth said as he highlighted some of the agency’s accomplishments, including breaking ground for the Jim Hinkle Spring River Hatchery renovation, completing the renovation of Mercer Bayou, completing a major project on the southern greentree reservoir at Henry Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area, modernizing the Marine Fuel Tax agreement with ArDOT and opening major shooting ranges in Jonesboro and Warren.

“2022 has been great for us,” Booth said. “Next month we’re going to present an annual report that will capture all of this for the people that we serve, and we will also announce a strategic plan for the next five years.”

The meeting also concluded the term of outgoing commissioner Bennie Westphal of Fort Smith. Westphal was appointed in December 2020 to complete the term of Commissioner Joe Morgan, who died after serving five years on the Commission.

Although his time on the Commission was abbreviated, Westphal was instrumental in many decisions during the last 18 months, including the selection of AGFC Director Booth and many of the major accomplishments highlighted in Booth’s address. He also continued to foster a relationship with PRADCO Outdoor Brands and the Commission, particularly with the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center in Fort Smith and fishing derbies taking place on Wells Lake. 

“If there’s one calming voice of all of the seven of us, it is Bennie,” Commissioner Bobby Martin of Rogers said. “We’re grateful, Bennie, that we got to be part of your chapter writing a legacy and now we have a lifelong friend.”

In today’s business actions, the Commission approved the removal of the regulation that prohibits shooting a radio-collared bear during open hunting seasons in Arkansas. With the recently approved bear season in Bear Zones 3 and 4 and the subsequent crowdfunded black bear population research project taking place in south Arkansas, the regulation was lifted to give more accurate results of bear population dynamics when hunting seasons begin.

Director Booth applauded the effort of AGFC biologists and staff who are currently undertaking to monitor the bear population and promote hunting as a viable tool to manage bear populations.

“This morning AGFC Large Carnivore Program Coordinator Myron Means is with AGFC State Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. (Jenn) Ballard in south Arkansas trapping bears and outfitting them with new GPS collars to unlock a whole new level of research with black bears,” Booth said. “We’re excited about the acquisition of those collars because we did it with partners Robbie Kroger of Blood Origins and a crowdsourcing fundraising effort with matches from the Cabela’s Foundation and Legends Ranch.” 

The Commission also elected Commissioner Martin as Commission Chairman and Commissioner Stan Jones of Walnut Ridge as Commission Vicechairman for Fiscal Year 2023.

In other business, the Commission:

  • Heard from Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation President Deke Whitbeck, who updated the Commission on the recent Tin Cup Golf Tournament, Arkansas State Duck Stamp unveiling and Commissioners’ Cup Youth Bass Fishing Tournament as well as the upcoming Arkansas Outdoors Hall of Fame Banquet.
  • Heard from Bruce Stanton with PRADCO Outdoor Brands, a Fort Smith-based outdoor brand who has partnered with the AGFC on many local events. 
  • Approved a regulation to allow unlimited harvest of fish from Big Lake in Mississippi County. The lake is being drawn down by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for renovation and construction needs, and the AGFC wishes to allow anglers to take advantage of the resource by keeping as many fish from the lake as they wish before it is drained.
  • Approved two clarifications to codes regulating the minimum draw weights on archery equipment and camping permit requirements on wildlife management areas. 
  • Approved a cooperative research agreement with the University of Arkansas’s Research Unit to coordinate research projects with the AGFC and many other government agencies to accomplish on-the-ground research to keep wildlife and fisheries management up to date with the latest science.
  • Approved the agency’s Fiscal Year 2023 Black River WMA Restoration Fund Budget of $1,257,383;
  • Approved the agency’s Fiscal Year 2023 Gas Lease Funds Budget of $100,000; 
  • Approved a budget carryforward of $4,600,644.64 from the Stability and Enhancement Fund to the Fiscal Year 2023 Budget;
  • Approved the agency’s Fiscal Year 2023 Operating Funds Budget of $117,386,070;
  • Awarded retiring wildlife officer Capt. Shad Pearce his service sidearm for 25 years of service to the AGFC; and
  • Approved the removal of outdated and obsolete inventory with a total original cost of $11,880 and a present net book value of $0.

A video of the meeting is available at https://www.youtube.com/user/ArkansasGameandFish.

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