There’s nothing that affects the quality of Arkansas’ duck hunting more than habitat and there’s no one who’s done more to advance understanding of that habitat than Dr. Mickey Heitmeyer.
Heitmeyer knows more about wetlands and waterfowl than anyone on the continent, if not the world. As it applies to the importance of wintering conditions, he literally wrote the book on water management, tree health and the relationship between how a duck spends its winter and the continued health of the species.
“My PhD advisor, Dr. Lee Frederickson, had an old saying that I’ve subscribed to,” he said. “And that is, you can’t understand the animal, in this case the duck, until you first understand where they live.
“My original work was very specific to the duck -- the bird and all the intricacies of what made a mallard a mallard and other waterfowl what they are. At the same time, we did coincidence studies with ecology of bottomland hardwoods.”
Heitmeyer’s work represented a fundamental shift in thinking, that being the importance of quality wintering habitat. Prior to his groundbreaking studies, scientists were largely consumed with the pothole prairie breeding grounds in Canada and not the flooded green timber and rice fields of Arkansas.
In 1981, Heitmeyer and Frederickson co-authored a scientific paper that proved North American mallard populations were significantly impacted by conditions in bottomland hardwood wetlands during winter in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley. Arkansas’ duck habitat was suddenly very big news.
“The first study we published in 1981 proved that habitat conditions in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley influenced how many mallards were going to be produced the next year and also how many survived,” he said. “Then those studies were a foundation for inclusion in the first North American waterfowl plan in 1985 of joint ventures that occurred outside of the breeding ground.”
Such findings weren’t merely of scientific interest, it translated into investment by conservation groups and government entities into the MAV for the improvement and expansion of this now very important habitat.
“Those were really exciting and interesting days in the 1980s and early 1990s,” he said.
“The whole world was changing in how we viewed ducks, how we managed them, how we spent our money and what conservation efforts were going forward. And I guess I’d like to take a little credit for that.”
Heitmeyer grew up on a small farm in southern Missouri where his father, Henry, invested as much energy in his hunting and fishing as he did on farm work.
“I was interested in a career in habitat and wildlife conservation from the time I was in high school,” he said. “I wanted to be working in the outdoors and be part of conservation. That was kind of an ethic that was instilled in me by my father.”
Heitmeyer earned his undergraduate and PhD from the University of Missouri and his Master’s degree from Oklahoma State. After the 1981 landmark paper, he was in high demand as he continued to refine understanding of how winter habitat played a part in duck numbers as well as ways man could be helpful in these areas.
He joined Ducks Unlimited in 1990 and soon became the organization’s national group manager of conservation programs and director of the Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research. There he led the effort to develop a Continental Conservation Plan for DU, which is still in effect today.
By the time he formed his consulting company, Greenbrier Wetland Services, he was considered the foremost authority in North America on bottomland hardwood wetlands, GTRs, moist-soil impoundments, wetland design and development and landscape-scale ecosystem restoration.
“The bottomland forests are not all the same, relevant to the species, composition, how long they should be flooded and so forth,” he said. “We started building these models and maps about what habitats belonged where throughout. That led me to work in 26 different states, over 100 national wildlife refuges and God knows how many state areas and private properties. I’d say probably over 500 in total.”
Arkansas has been among Heitmeyer’s clients as wildlife entities here engaged him for several important projects. His studies on ecosystem restoration and management molded conservation programs in the Grand Prairie region, Bayou Meto Basin, Cache River Basin and White River National Wildlife Refuge.
His research formed the foundation for management of Bayou Meto WMA in 2004 and Dave Donaldson WMA in 2006. The former provided the first comprehensive plan for managing Bayou Meto based on science and the latter helped the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission win an important federal lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
With each project, general scientific understanding comes into sharper focus.
“I’d say there’s four phases there,” he said. “The first one was just a love and interest in the ducks. Number two, an interest in where they live, the habitat, the ecology, the systems the ducks live in. The third step is the more intricate part of the management of where they live, specifically, greentree reservoirs. The fourth phase was this 30,000-foot view of landscape level strategic conservation.”
“Ducks were the thread that went through the whole thing, of course. I have been and still am a very avid hunter. I hunt because I love the birds and I love being out there.”