Birders are back in the “hot zone,” or what the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge calls the “Managed Access Area,” that offered multiple views of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the past couple of years.
The hot zone had been closed since April, when the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas and Cornell Lab of Ornithology reported evidence that an ivory-billed woodpecker, thought to be extinct, had been spotted along the Bayou DeView.
The area, three tracts totaling 4,800 acres, was opened a couple of weeks ago after the refuge announced new rules for access and commercial bird guiding. Up to 38 “non-consumptive” visitors (meaning those neither hunting nor fishing) a day may get access to the formerly restricted area by obtaining a permit from the refuge office a day in advance. The office is in Dixie, 16 miles south of Augusta on Highway 33.
Last week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced it was buying 1,800 acres of land adjacent to the refuge to help conserve the Big Woods remnant that is home to wintering ducks and other species, as well as the woodpecker.
Around 20 people have obtained permits since the “hot zone” (a term given the area by Cornell and Nature Conservancy researchers) has been open, refuge manager Dennis J. Widner said last week. One of the people to paddle the Bayou DeView’s tupelo-cypress swamp was Kate Jacques, general manager of the Brinkley Argus newspaper, who thought it was high time she made what was her first visit to the Cache refuge. “It’s in our backyard. People are coming from all over the world to look for the bird and we live here … it’s ridiculous for us not to look.”
Another was one of those out-of-towners: John Rickert of Elizabethtown, Ky. Rickert was scouting the area in preparation for volunteer work he hopes to do with Cornell when it returns in November. “I saw a lot of pileateds [woodpeckers],” he said, but no ivorybills.
Jacques, who canoed the bayou south of the Hwy. 17 bridge with her brother, took a Nikon camera with her. A couple of fishermen they ran into asked “if we were going after the million-dollar bird,” Jacques said; they were referring to local belief that whoever can get a photograph of the bird can sell it for $1 million. She didn’t see the woodpecker, but she did see beautiful swamp, she said.
“I never thought I’d need a canoe in Monroe County,” Jacques said, but she does now.
The refuge’s decision to close the “hot zone” to the public was controversial; some feared Fish and Wildlife would end all hunting and fishing in the area to protect the bird.
The refuge will also allow commercial birding guides on the Cache, though not in the managed access area. The guides will be required to pay $500 a year for permits, just as duck guides do. No one has shown interest in getting bird guide permits yet, Widner said, though he expects to sell some.
A request for comments on the agency’s new rules on use of the Managed Access Area, due by Aug. 19, produced only a small response, Widner said. Allowing commercial bird guides got a negative response, he said, largely because people don’t want to see private enterprise on public lands. Aggressive duck guides who once shooed off hunters from good holes as if the refuge were their own left a bad taste in the mouth of locals, and Widner said the opposition to bird guides was likely “bleedover” from that.
A reporter heard some grousing during a visit to Brinkley about the new limits on hunting permits, but Widner said the area was never a popular hunting spot, and the number of permits that can be issued are more than historic use of the area.
Cornell will be joined by researchers from Audubon Arkansas and the state Game and Fish Commission when the search starts up again in November. Searchers will hold special permits that allow them access to the “hot zone.”
Rickert said he hoped the refuge would consider putting an office in Brinkley to provide permits, to save people the 25-mile trip to Dixie.