A decision by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission not to fill one of only two ornithology jobs at the agency has non-agency conservationists wondering: What's the agency's commitment to its non-game programs added in exchange for collecting a sales tax from all Arkansans?
“People can make assumptions,” Deputy Director David Goad said, but any idea that the agency is backing off its non-game activities “is absolutely wrong.” He said it's possible the agency will fill the position in the future.
Catherine Rideout was until December the agency's non-game ornithologist for perching birds, including neotropical migrants. Since 2003, she worked with refuge managers to help them monitor bird populations and improve habitat, coordinated the agency's partnerships with other state, federal and non-governmental agencies, did research into conservation design for grassland species, and worked with universities on student research. She represented the agency in its work with the international bird conservation organization Partners in Flight. She is now Joint Ventures coordinator for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, stationed at Auburn University.
Steve Osborne, now retired from U.S. Fish and Wildlife and who worked with Rideout both in the agency's quail study group and its ivory-billed woodpecker research, described Rideout's job was “a really important position” and one that, given the eighth-cent conservation tax passed in 1996, would seem to be a “high priority to fill.”
The tax was passed after it became clear that the agency could not survive on fishing and hunting license revenues alone. Part of the revenues from the tax now go to non-game programs (as do other state and federal funds).
Goad said Rideout's duties would be taken over by Karen Rowe, now the agency's sole ornithologist, who oversees reintroduction and habitat projects for non-perching birds (such as eagles and swans) from the agency's research station in Hampton. He said the agency would promote an employee to “beef up” its data management. “We only have so many slots,” he said. He acknowledged that Rowe was busy already, but added “we all work a lot.”
Goad noted that the agency has herpetologists, malacologists (mussel researchers), aquatic and small mammal biologists working to keep critters off the “t and e” (threatened and endangered) lists, and said there was “no lessening of commitment” to that research. He added, however, that the “hook and bullet” crowd “got us where we're at,” and that they pay the conservation sales tax along with everyone else.
Ken Smith, director of Arkansas Audubon, said Rideout's work was far-reaching, especially her work representing the Game and Fish in its partnerships with other agencies to leverage funds. “Catherine left big shoes to fill. I'm not sure anyone can fill those,” Smith said. He said he hoped “that we don't lose the value that Catherine has brought to the job in the past several years.”
Joe Neal, a retired Forest Service ornithologist and the co-author of “Arkansas Birds,” was, like Osborne and Smith, hesitant to criticize the agency but willing to comment. “I guess the thing I'd want to know is, who in the heck [is going to do her job]?” Neal asked.
In his experience with the Forest Service — which reduced its staff of professional biologists by half over 15 years — “when you cut the staff in half, some of [the work] falls off the plate,” Neal said. And, he noted, the non-game bird “constituency doesn't have much influence. Never had it much at Game and Fish.”