The Great Confluence is North America’s largest, occurring just outside of St. Louis, Missouri, and comprised of the Missouri, Illinois and Missouri rivers. There are 75,000-100,000 acres nearly contiguous habitat managed by private landowners and clubs dating back to the 1800s. In a state that’s lost 90% of its wetlands habitat, the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance was created to hold the fort. Long-time friend Mike Checkett joins us today, describing this amazing region, it’s long-standing importance to migratory waterfowl, what and how they’re protecting what’s left.

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Managing the Largest Confluence in North America

And he began to tell me about this organization that he had been instrumental in founding many years ago because of some of the habitat and conservation issues that he and others in that area to protect that great confluence we’re dealing with and my mind was blown. 

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere, duck season is behind us here in America, but it ain’t. Because duck season doesn’t happen. Great duck seasons don’t happen by accident. I’ll tell you an interesting story, I was up doing a little road trip coming through Missouri this year and stopped by and hunted with some folks and found myself kind of about 30 minutes outside of St. Louis, some beautiful habitat and on a beautiful piece of property, met with a man named Adolphus Busch of the Busch family, Budweiser, Anheuser Busch all that business, and he showed me a map of where we were not on his property, but relative to the overall landscape and we were sitting in the Great Confluence, the largest confluence on the North American continent, it’s where the Illinois and the Missouri and the Mississippi River all join up around St. Louis. And he began to tell me about this organization that he had been instrumental in founding many years ago because of some of the habitat and conservation issues that he and others in that area to protect that great confluence we’re dealing with and my mind was blown. Heck, I had no idea that was the largest confluence in North America or the important or the heartbeat of the Mississippi Flyway or that someone like himself and others had built this program. So I get back and of course I want to do an interview, I want to talk to them about the Great River Habitat Alliance. And I write an inbox online and send it to them, say, hey, I’d like to meet with you and I get a phone call back from a long old time buddy of mine that I had no idea was now the Executive Director named Mike Checkett. Mike, how the hell are you, man?

Mike Checkett: I’m doing well, Ramsey, for just a few weeks out of that duck season, I think I’m through withdrawals now and now I’m ready for the other season, which is it’s always duck season for me all year round, but when we’re shooting and when we’re preparing to shoot and good to be here.

Ramsey Russell: I think that’s the way every duck hunter in America has gotten today. I say it’s duck season somewhere because geographically you can travel and keep yourself in duck season, but the truth matter is, it’s duck season 365 days a year, 24 hours in the heart of an American duck hunter. We’re always doing habitat or building blinds or taking care of decoys and dreaming and scheming to keep ourselves in the ducks and productive duck hunts. And I think that singularly defines the American duck hunting culture relative to everybody else. But Mike, man, the last time I saw you, the last time I physically got to be with you and have a good time, you were not with the Great River Habitat Alliance, you were in a whole different career mode at that time and we were hunting in Quebec shooting greater snow geese, that’s a long time ago, man.

Mike Checkett: It was. It’s amazing, I guess, because I have kids now, the time flies even more. But we were up there at Cape Tormentine on the St. Lawrence River, it was May, I think. And as you said, duck season somewhere, we went up there with the DU TV show to film with you and talk about the conservation issues of greater snow geese and kind of a beautiful area in itself up along the St. Lawrence River there. And you showed us a great time and had a good time, we’ve stayed in touch a little bit, but we kind of fell off a little here and I’m just excited to have a chance to reconnect.

A History with Waterfowl

But Ducks Unlimited is not the entirety of your career in wildlife management or waterfowl management, you’ve worked elsewhere too, throughout the years, haven’t you?

Ramsey Russell: Life does that, Mike. I mean, you’ve been busy with kids and work and I’ve been busy with work and kids and that’s the downside of doing something you love to do, is it consumes you. How long were you the host of Ducks Unlimited television?

Mike Checkett: Well, I was in the communications department for about 6 years and involved in DU TV in one way or another during that, everything from producing to co-hosting the show. And then a couple years prior to that, I was kind of involved in helping produce the show through the conservation section. I’m a dumb field biologist that talks too much and every time I say stuff, people said, well, if you don’t like this, then go help them do that. And next thing I know, I was helping advise on the TV show. And that’s how I went from a biologist to a communications expert and got involved in the TV show both in front and behind and then carried that career on back up to St. Louis with Ducks Unlimited to manage our development program here in Missouri and Kentucky.

Ramsey Russell: But Ducks Unlimited is not the entirety of your career in wildlife management or waterfowl management, you’ve worked elsewhere too, throughout the years, haven’t you?

Mike Checkett: I have. I started out at the University of Missouri with my graduate work and that was being supported by Ducks Unlimited in the Missouri Department of Conservation and then consequently was working with Missouri Department of Conservation in the research section for a few years until I got the job at Arkansas as the chief waterfowl biologist, Arkansas Game Fish Commission. And then was there until my former mentor, Dr. Bruce Batt, who was the chief biologist at Ducks Unlimited talked me into coming over and starting to work for DU and that led me to an 18 year career with Ducks Unlimited as well in a variety of positions from communications biologist to the development world.

Important Aspects of the Mississippi Flyway

St. Lawrence River was kind of like the neck of the hourglass for greater snow geese as they move between their wintering grounds and their breeding grounds and we’re very much the same thing here in the confluence. 

Ramsey Russell: The last time I saw you, as mentioned, we were up in Cape Tormentine, Quebec, which very important to greater snow geese. I mean, it’s like, really and truly, if there’s a million greater snow geese that come out of the Arctic and go down the St. Lawrence River through the St. Lawrence River and start to spread out in Delaware, Virginia, Maryland, they thread this little bitty needle called Cape Tormentine, it’s so essential. It’s such an integral part of their life cycle, just like that St. Lawrence River. You may remember those birds would key in on those rise, those tide surges, there might be a 24ft tidal surge and when that river fell out, those birds would get in that mud flat and start to grub for rhizome and stuff. And then when the river came back up, we’d hunt them elsewhere, we’d hunt them kind of on some loafing areas where they’d come and lay up. And I say all that just to say that all these years later, you’re now sitting up at the Great Confluence doing some pretty important conservation work for an NGO named the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, that is wow, it’s a pretty mission critical place to a Mississippi Flyway duck hunter. No matter which side of St. Louis you’re on, south or north, it’s a very important piece of the puzzle for the Mississippi Flyway. Wouldn’t you agree?

Mike Checkett: Absolutely. St. Lawrence River was kind of like the neck of the hourglass for greater snow geese as they move between their wintering grounds and their breeding grounds and we’re very much the same thing here in the confluence. We see ourselves as that neck of the hourglass where birds are moving from the wintering grounds coming down the Missouri, the Illinois and the Mississippi Rivers and it funnels them right here to the confluence and about 75,000 to 100,000 acres that remain at one time, I only wish I could have seen it back when there were elk and other large animals moving through, but it was a beautiful bottomland hardwood prairie wetland area. And it’s been highly impacted now by agriculture and urbanization in particular. But there’s still some really good solid habitat because of the forethought of individuals to protect it. There’s duck clubs in the confluence that have been around since the 1800s and families and other groups have been protecting those habitats ever since then and Great Rivers Habitat is certainly not that old, but continues to try to maintain the historic waterfowling and habitats that are within that area.

Hunting History of the St. Lawrence River

So there’s kind of a wide array of everything from public land hunting on the river to private clubs.

Ramsey Russell: Can you talk in general terms about some of the specific club history or family history and activities and hunting history in that area?

Mike Checkett: Yeah. I grew up in St. Louis and my dad was a Naval Academy grad, was a Navy brat and lived on both coasts, but when he retired, we moved back and this is where I cut my teeth in waterfowl hunting on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. I wasn’t out hunting on some of these clubs, I didn’t have the access at that time, it was, again, mostly private ground. But since in the last 30 years, there’s been some major additions in both public lands, both Fish and Wildlife Service and Missouri Department of Conservation areas that provide public hunting, there’s always been public hunting along rivers. And then, like I said, depending on how you count it 75,000 to 100,000 acres of managed habitat between the clubs, the private I mean, the public lands, when you think about St. Louis, there’s a lot of who’s who of different families that, as you mentioned, Adolphus Busch. The Busch family have been tremendous conservationists in their own right and Budweiser has contributed millions of dollars to support conservation, were a huge partner with Ducks Unlimited for many years and continue to be. But some of those families have farms out there that they manage for waterfowl, they also have agriculture on and they maintain as recreational areas, the Schnucks family with the Schnucks grocery stores, here Emerson Electric. I mean, there’s just a variety of different families and corporations, but then a lot of groups of just individuals that came together and bought properties. And then there’s a handful of annual membership clubs that are within the confluence as well. So there’s kind of a wide array of everything from public land hunting on the river to private clubs.

Ramsey Russell: That’s a big chunk of land. If you look at a map like the one he showed me, you see the confluence, but then you see at least 75,000 acres of private land holdings beneath it, it’s contiguous, it’s all contiguous private clubs and land ownerships and things of that nature. And it’s not just that there’s so many acres, it’s that so many contiguous acres under a lot of, what I’d call strict management for waterfowl, very strict forms of management. It’s not just the habitat they’re installing but the way they’re actually managing hunting pressure and things of that effect. Mr. Busch showed me, he said, there’s an island out there in the middle where all those rivers meet up and he was talking about a refuge, I can’t remember if it was state or federal that had been established right there that’s really holding a lot of birds. What was the name of that refuge?

Mike Checkett: Well, just up the river on the northern part of the confluence, you have a state area called Ted Shanks. And then as you come south, you have Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge. You go across the river, there’s Batch Town Refuge, Swan Lake and Two Rivers. Swan Lake is the national and Two Rivers is an Illinois department state area. And then you get down in the southern end of the confluence and there’s actually a conservation area called Mayor Tim Clare and BK Leach. So there’s a real mix of habitats and public lands within the private land system there.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, a lot of the clubs I’ve seen or have heard about are managing intensively all the way up through Hennepin, Illinois with flooded corn. Is anybody on the private side or some of those clubs managing for moist soil or anything of that nature?

Mike Checkett: Absolutely, yeah. Club management is all about how much you have to spend or willing to spend, but there’s intensively managed moist soil areas, there’s agriculture, corn, soybeans, there’s planted Japanese millet and other. Some guys are putting some milo out there different stuff depending on the years. We’re right there in the confluence, so some years were flooded from February to July back in 2019 and you can’t get corn in, but if you wanted to. But there’s a mix of all different types of habitats, most of the clubs recognize the importance of the different types to create that smorgasbord for wildlife, it’s one of the things that Great Rivers Habitat Alliance promotes. We actually have a 3 day workshop where we have experts in wetland habitat management come in Dr. Mickey Heitmeyer and Doug Helmers and teach intensive management on things like moist soil management. Actually pushing a little bit away from agriculture because there’s a lot of ag on the ground and the missing piece in many places is that native or natural habitat. And so those moist soil managed properties tend to do better than the corn areas, believe it or not. It’s good to have some corn when temperatures drop down cold and you need some hot food that carbohydrate fat, but most of the year the ducks aren’t really all that interested and a lot of times if you see them going in the corn, they’re actually going in there to eat the weed seeds and the fall panicgrass and Sprangle top and different grasses like that. I know, you know, one of my mentors that I look up to Dr. Rick Kaminski, dirty corn is what he always used to like to call it. These areas are intensively managed, they manage the hunting pressure as well, a lot of these clubs only hunt certain days of the week or only hunt afternoons.

Ramsey Russell: That may be one of the most impressive things I saw, especially when you start talking about the enormous amount of personal commitment to habitat, be it moist soil management, be it water levels, be it planted something, but on top of that, because I’ve always felt like you look a lot of the work that Cohen is doing, especially about hunting pressure, they have gone to extremes. I know a lot of the clubs up there have inviolate Sanctuaries.

Mike Checkett: That’s a good point.

Important Contributions to Waterfowl Habitat Management

And so some of those big clubs like the Quiver Club, Horseshoe, Darden, Raccoon Ranch, Bellow, which is Adolphus’s Club, there was some great forward thinking by people before us that recognized the importance of those habitats and protected them. 

Ramsey Russell: They hunt very few days a week or they hunt just the afternoons. One of the most unique things I ever ran across recently, I just never thought about this. I was actually hunting up in Illinois, just north of their very similar habitat and when they said, we’re going to get up in the morning, go duck hunting, I didn’t think to ask what time, I just set my clock based on sunrise and got up to an empty house and drank coffee with an empty house and 30 minutes after sunrise people started coming downstairs, I’m like, well, aren’t we late? They go, no, we’re not late, we don’t drive, nobody drives off in these duck holes before dark, because you’ll scare the birds away. If we drive in there in the daylight, they just roll out of the way and come right back. But I’d never heard of that, Mike. But when I started visiting some of these camps around the Great Confluence a lot of them do not go out preceding daylight and a lot of them only hunt one or two or three afternoons or days a week and almost all of them, like I said, had a sanctuary. And some of them hold some of the sanctuary, some of the inviolate sanctuaries that are purely for the ducks, holding a very impressive amount of waterfowl that have that habitat and that space to themselves to do duck things, things that ducks need to do besides get shot at. I couldn’t have been more impressed, it reflected to me a regional commitment to quality hunting and quality habitat and providing a very quality environment for migratory waterfowl that you don’t see everywhere in the United States.

Mike Checkett: You’re absolutely correct. In fact, I’m glad you brought that up because there are a lot of the clubs that hunt mornings only, don’t go out until 8:00, a half hour after sunrise, that kind of thing. Most of the big clubs in particular have inviolate areas, as you mentioned, some of them, Darden Club, I think their main refuge is like 600 plus acres, it’s a big natural buffalo wallow that is all managed in moist soil and that’s a huge draw for birds. But if we ever lost that, it would be a big detriment to the Mississippi Flyway because of the way they manage it and the importance of that food resource to waterfowl and the fact that they don’t hunt it. They’ve got 2000 acres but they understand and put close to half of what they own in refuge and many of the clubs do that. Mr. Busch does, The Quiver Club, Horseshoe, Whistling Wings these names won’t necessarily mean anything to some folks but they do make that commitment. And it is, I think, a regional commitment and it’s what Great Rivers is about. These clubs formed Great Rivers essentially to protect this habitat and are supportive of our organization as well as others like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl and others to protect the resource not just in the confluence, but up the river as well and into the breeding ground.

Ramsey Russell: You said something about a 600 acre buffalo wallow, elaborate on that just a minute, because that ain’t something we run across here in Mississippi.

Mike Checkett: Yeah, a club called Darden that was, I think, started in 1884 or 1886 I always forget which exact day it was. But their main rest lake is an old buffalo wallow. So the depression that’s there that holds water was created by buffalo coming down and wallowing around in these wet prairies that used to be here in between the bottom land hardwoods of the river.

Ramsey Russell: Back when there were a whole lot of buffaloes.

Mike Checkett: It would dry out in the summer and then in the fall rains would fill it back up and it was a historic place that ducks have always used and thankfully it was protected early on by that club. And so some of those big clubs like the Quiver Club, Horseshoe, Darden, Raccoon Ranch, Bellow, which is Adolphus’s Club, there was some great forward thinking by people before us that recognized the importance of those habitats and protected them. And many of them are in conservation easements that are held by Ducks Unlimited, so they’re protected in perpetuity. We work with Ducks Unlimited on that program to try to help the uptake of conservation easements, promote the program so that these areas are protected in perpetuity and that the city of St. Louis can’t grow into that area and it’s the pressures we feel every day.

Ramsey Russell: Mike, why is the great confluence critical to the Mississippi Flyway? What I’m getting at, if I’m sitting here somewhere else in America, let alone the Mississippi Flyway, what do I care? Why is this area so important to the continent and to the Mississippi Flyway? What is it about this location, the great confluence that is worth the fight and worth the commitment?

Mike Checkett: The easy answer is that ducks have to have places to stop in between the breeding grounds and the wintering grounds. For a mallard to make it from Saskatchewan or Alberta, he’s got to stop somewhere to get to Arkansas and Louisiana and Mississippi and it’s wintering grounds. So the confluence just in Missouri in itself happens to be kind of in a really good spot where ducks that can fly a 500 miles trip in a night, it’s a good spot for them to stop and rest. And if those mid latitude places are not there, it becomes much more difficult for the birds to migrate from the breeding grounds to the wintering grounds. And unfortunately, a lot of these mid latitude states like Missouri have lost more habitat than other states. Many of us are familiar with the loss rate of Louisiana in the Gulf Coast. I think they talk about now that it’s a football size piece of ground every 40 minutes or 38 minutes or something like that. 90% of the wetlands in Missouri have been lost and most of those were associated with the rivers. And so protecting those is extremely important both for the folks in the confluence to protect the history and historic waterfowling and recreation that’s there, but also for the ducks because they’ve got to have places to go on their migration south. And that regional commitment that you mentioned earlier that everybody here in St. Louis has been I mean, the duck hunting is a huge – you hear about Stuttgart and duck hunting and Gueydan Louisiana or other places, but St. Louis and duck hunting, it’s a duck town.

Wetlands Lost: The Mississippi Flyway

I got less opportunities of places I can go shoot ducks and I think that when you look at the Mississippi River levels last spring and just a lot of different indices that we all see happening, I think it’s a smoking gun proof of wetlands lost continental. 

Ramsey Russell: That’s the point I was just trying to make, I wanted to hear you say it. Unlike a lot of other places in the world, North America and throughout the northern hemisphere, we have continental migrations, birds are coming from northern latitudes down to southern latitudes as chased by winter and you don’t see that in the southern hemisphere now, it’s all kind of a local nomadism. And to do that, to have healthy populations of mallards and green wings and all these wonderful species of ducks and geese, we’ve got to have habitat intact from their nesting grounds clear down to their wintering grounds and back, it’s got to be seamless. And you sitting here saying the state of Missouri, 90% of the wetland habitat has been lost, I don’t know and have never heard what it may be throughout the continent or throughout the entire Mississippi Flyway of wetland lost. But I can see it. I had a conversation with Rick Kaminski not too long ago, 25 years ago, when I was sitting in his classroom, I could go out practically anywhere and shoot ducks. And now it’s become a little more distilled. I got less opportunities of places I can go shoot ducks and I think that when you look at the Mississippi River levels last spring and just a lot of different indices that we all see happening, I think it’s a smoking gun proof of wetlands lost continental. And a small part of me, Mike, just wonders, man, can we lose the amount of waterfowl habitat in the next 20 years that we’ve lost in the past 20 and still have anything left? I mean, 90% of Missouri’s wetlands are gone. How much more can we lose of that? And you ask me personally, we can’t give up another square inch, we don’t need no lost wetlands, we need a plus, we need to start adding back, I think. So that’s what excites me about organizations like yours and others that are fighting to keep this habitat intact, because we’ve got to have a mostly contiguous amount of habitat, from the nesting way up in the Arctic clear down to the gulf coast and back, to keep these waterfowl doing their things. Wouldn’t you agree?

Mike Checkett: Absolutely. If we want to enjoy continental populations of waterfowl, you’ve got to protect the land so that it’s there when the ducks need it. On the breeding grounds, it may be dry and you may not get production in some years, but when it gets wet, if the habitat is still there, those wetlands still can hold, those basins can hold that water, can grow the grass and the other nutrients the ducks need, they’ll produce young ones. And I think this year my discussions with hunters across the confluence and then down into Arkansas and others, while there was some tough periods this season, overall I think everybody thought it was the best season in several years. And I think that was an indicator of the fact that we actually had some production on the breeding grounds last summer because of that late spring snow and the rains that continued on.

Ramsey Russell: And we had a dose of winter this year. We had a slug of winter like we haven’t seen in a while. And I would say that, man, when it’s zero degrees around Christmas in Mississippi, old man winter is here.

Mike Checkett: There weren’t many ducks up in St. Louis around Christmas, I can tell you that.

Ramsey Russell: No. And Pursuant to that cold front it was some of the best mallard hunting in the state of Mississippi, however briefly, that I’ve seen in 20 years.

Mike Checkett: Well, again, it goes back to why it’s so important to maintain that habitat throughout the flyway, because if you don’t have it on the breeding grounds, when it gets wet on the breeding grounds, you’re not going to get production, if you don’t have mid latitude areas when the birds are migrating, you’re not going to have good continental population of ducks and then when it freezes up here, they got to go south, there better be some habitat left on the wintering grounds or we can’t send them back up again, getting them back up to the breeding grounds fat and happy. And that’s another point we haven’t talked about, is a lot of these clubs will manage this habitat, particularly right now in February, March, April, so that when the ducks are returning, they can fatten up and go back to the breeding grounds and produce that next generation. So another aspect of these guys certainly enjoy recreational hunting, I mean, they’re hunting ducks and turkeys and deer and everything in the fall, but they maintain the habitat year round for wildlife so that it will benefit the life cycle of all those critters.

Ramsey Russell: Mike there’s a lot of people that hear us talk about stuff like these clubs 75,000 to 100,000 acres of managed habitat, a lot of Deep South hunters frustrated with what they perceive as a decline of migration, myself included sometimes. But a lot of people want to point the finger up the flyway and say, well, they’re shortstopping my ducks. I don’t know that I agree with that. I can see why a duck would land in that habitat and not want to fly further south. But at the same time, unless we get that real cold winter, like that dose we got this year and you said there were no ducks up there in Missouri that time of year. Why would they fly south if the weather is not pushing them south? We can’t deny that we’re starting to see in the past, whatever, 10 years, it seemed to be a lot warmer winters than 20 years ago. 

How Habitat Conditions Drive Migration And Hunting Success

They get here those first 3 days in the front, you have some really good hunting, then they kind of get situated, they figure out where the refuges are, they figure out what your hunt plan is.

Mike Checkett: Absolutely something I used to always tag the end of my reports when I was the waterfowl biologist in Arkansas in the late 90s, early 2000s was that weather and habitat conditions drive migration and hunting success. And it’s not just weather and habitat conditions in your backyard, it’s throughout the flyway. In warm winters, I think, yeah, there’s times where the bulk of the migration may not make it to certain latitudes, in cold winters like this year they surely and I think clearly did. One of the neat things that’s going on right now is the satellite telemetry research that’s happening. We’ve always had banding data and banding data has always provided really strong indications of where a bird was banded and where he was shot, so you have those linkages. When I was with Game & Fish Commission in Arkansas, we supported habitat work in southern Saskatchewan through Ducks Unlimited because that’s where the bulk of our mallards came from. I know Mississippi does that same program, Tennessee and others to help support habitat within the areas that typically produce ducks that wintering your ground. I think these transmitters are really showing some neat data on migration and kind of opening the door a little bit on whether or not that’s matching up with historic band data, is the timing matching up on when they’re coming south, it’s certainly showing the importance of different places. It’s no surprise to me, but I’m always glad to see that the birds are still hitting Missouri on their way north or hitting Missouri on their way south, when I see those birds that are banded or the transmitters by the Osborne lab and Cohen lab, there’s a strong link again, showing that we’ve got to have some of that habitat in those mid latitude states or else we don’t know whether those birds will make it down. So I’ve really been watching that kind of information in particular just to see there’s some inklings that some of the band data is showing that harvest recoveries may be moving a little bit farther north. But then you get a cold year like this that probably bumps some of that banding data back. I happen to be fortunate enough, first one I’ve shot in a few years, but I shot a banded mallard this year, January 6th at Doug Osborne’s lab, banded just north of me, 40 miles in February of 2022. So it hadn’t had that band on for a year, but he was over a year old, so clearly he made it down, got banded, made it back to the breeding grounds and made it all the way back down to Arkansas again. That’s some neat info that I think continues to show that migration is not broken, but it’s certainly the weather conditions are dictating and continue to and there’s some other interesting things that they’re starting to show as well.

Ramsey Russell: Like what?

Mike Checkett: Just local movements. Dr. Cohen, over in Tennessee gave a presentation at the Tennessee Commission meeting just recently and really talked about how the birds that they’re putting transmitters on are not moving a lot once they get to Tennessee, they make it to Tennessee, they fly around, they find the safe areas and they’re vulnerable to hunting during that period of time. But until there’s some kind of a pressure of cold front or something to make them move again, they are staying away from the places that people are shooting at them. They have those interactions with hunters once and they either die or they learn from it and it doesn’t take them long. They’re pretty smart. I think everybody listening right now, if every time you came home your wife shot at you, you probably wouldn’t come home very often or if she got you the first time, you’re not coming home again. Some of that data was opening my eyes a bit as to how little the birds were moving around and then we see that a little bit up here in the confluence. They get here those first 3 days in the front, you have some really good hunting, then they kind of get situated, they figure out where the refuges are, they figure out what your hunt plan is. When I used to grow up hunting the St. Louis or the Missouri Department of Conservation areas that were only open till 1:00, it was amazing as you’re paddling out at 1:20, how many ducks are coming in. They figure it out right when the shooting pools are open to ducks and when they’re open to hunters. So we see that here, I see it down in Arkansas, you get the fronts, you get a couple of days, then they figure out where the safe places are, they start moving between those two and then you got to wait for that next weather event or that new push of birds before the hunting gets better again. And I’m not sure if that’s not what historically happened throughout history, but we certainly have a lot of folks that are trying to take care of habitat and provide for ducks, but also trying to chase them. There are things like pressure and other aspects are influencing what we see and know every day when we’re sitting in a duck blind.

Ramsey Russell: Rick Kaminski used to preach that the more habitat you’ve got on the landscape, the more overall ducks it attracts. And as an extension of that, the more habitat you’ve got flyway wide, the more ducks you’re going to have, the more successful your hunters, that’s just common basic understanding of waterfowl. But I have had people ask me my thoughts on what I think about these “Rich Clubs” not my words, theirs. These clubs putting so much habitat and holding so many ducks and having this sanctuary and enjoying this quality. But I say these ducks have wings, when climate hits or when they feed out an area or when they do something, to me, what a lot of this habitat management on private land represents is some of us hunters go above and beyond to produce habitat, yes, we benefit on the days or mornings or afternoons that we hunt these properties but society at large, people beyond those borders benefit. I’m saying those ducks are going to fly off elsewhere too and we all benefit. That’s something I see nationwide.

Mike Checkett: Absolutely.

Ramsey Russell: I think it’s good for all of duck hunting and all of the duck hunters that some of these keystone properties exist. Yeah, they may hold up in a warm part right there to confluence but let some real weather hit, they’ve got to fly south. Now we all benefit because they’re showing up fat and happy and in good shape coming down to see us for a little bit. I think it’s a win-win deal for all of us, don’t you?

Mike Checkett: I have to agree on all levels. I mean, if the habitat wasn’t here, ducks have wings, they’d go somewhere else. But let’s say it’s not here in the confluence and now these ducks decide to go further west and maybe instead of coming down into Missouri and down the Mississippi River into Arkansas and Tennessee and Mississippi they push west because the habitat is not there anymore and now they’re wintering in Texas or Oklahoma. And that may be great for them but what about the folks in those historic places that they used to go? So we’ve got to continue to maintain those habitats in all the flyways in all those places so that we take care of ducks in all the places that they need to be. And this might be a little bit anecdotal but hunters are the greatest conservationists. Well, the private clubs in the confluence when they sign up for a conservation easement there’s a long about process with it but there’s an easement value that they get to use. It’s a donated easement by that landowner and he gets a tax deduction. But what the general public gets is that easement value that Ducks Unlimited, Fish & Wild Service, MDC, Great Rivers we can utilize as match for federal grants to do habitat work within the confluence and we’ve put thousands of acres of public land on the landscape. So it’s a private land program that benefits public lands by adding public land that’s open to hunting here in Missouri. So I know that goes on in many places and similar things happen in Mississippi and Arkansas where they can use those private land easement dollars as match to get dollars for public land programme.

Ramsey Russell: The rest of us know that that easement is going to be intact, not divided, not poured to concrete, not converted to another land use in perpetuity forever. It’s protected.

Easement Value and Conservation Commitment

And to get ducks to the confluence, we’ve got to take care of habitat north of us as well. And so we work toward that and I’m hopeful in many few years down the road we might be even supporting habitat work on the breeding grounds as well because it is all connected. 

Mike Checkett: Absolutely. Great Rivers Habitat Alliance formed in the year 2000 to fight the highway 370 project that was originally designed to go right through the middle of these historic waterfowling habitats and we lost the overall battle, but we were able to push the highway away from those and it actually goes around that important habitat. While there were a couple clubs that were lost, but there was also a concession for the 370 park and some other issues. But that effort just further pushed the guys that founded Great Rivers to continue to try to protect and maintain these important habitats and continue to now, 22 years later, as I was telling folks at the Missouri Wetland Summit last week, that we carry a sword or a baseball bat, depending on what fight we think we’re going to be in. And we’ve done a lot of litigation, but we recognize that to protect these habitats, we have to have on the ground programming too. So now we actually carry a shovel as well and we work with different partners to protect the habitats and not just here in the confluence. We’ve started doing programs up the Mississippi River, we just helped Ducks Unlimited buy a property up in the Mississippi watershed in Wisconsin. We’re looking at some other work in Iowa recognizing that some of the flooding issues as well as just wetland loss doesn’t just happen here. And to get ducks to the confluence, we’ve got to take care of habitat north of us as well. And so we work toward that and I’m hopeful in many few years down the road we might be even supporting habitat work on the breeding grounds as well because it is all connected. You can’t just think about one versus the other. Yes, we focus on the confluence, but we recognize we’ve got to be more than just that.

Ramsey Russell: You jumped into Great Rivers Habitat Alliance and it was founded in 2000. Look, Anheuser Busch, the King of Beers, set up in St. Louis because of that river and the rail and if you want to distribute a lot of product and scale out and do stuff, that’s the place to do it back in those days, they were right there. They had the rail system, they had the river system and for the same reason that Anheuser Busch set up the King of Beers right there in St. Louis, a lot of those industries set up right there. And St. Louis is not a small city, it’s a big city and big cities have demands for water and habitat and concrete and neighborhoods and everything else that comes with it and it’s right here in this area, we spent 30, 40 minutes talking about so important to the Mississippi Flyway and the continent. So a highway 371 came up and is that singularly why Great Rivers Habitat Alliance formed was to fight that highway system?

Origins of the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance

Habitat conservation, preserving habitat, this day and age is a constant fight, isn’t it?

Mike Checkett: Yeah, the highway 370 project was really the instigator, but landowners within the confluence were recognizing the fact that there were a lot of things happening, urban expansion and development that was starting to get closer and closer to the confluence and watching those habitats that used to be natural wetlands and sloughs and prairie marsh disappear. And so that’s why Great Rivers was founded to combat the commercial development of the 100 year floodplain and we do that through policy protection, conservation, public awareness and education and have had some great success in doing so. One of the crazy things about development is that developers will come into a floodplain area, look for assistance through the state or through the city in tax incremental financing and actually get paid to go out there and dig up the wetlands and build a warehouse. And so, as we fought the 370 fight, we also shifted gears into the policy aspect and made some significant accomplishments and things like State Senate Bill 225, which now prohibits the use of tax incentive financing for development in the 100 year floodplain. So, common sense to us initially, but it wasn’t as easy as you might think, but able to fight some of that, but we continue to now. There’s still things like floodplain fill and floodplain rise issues that allow developers –

Ramsey Russell: Talk about some of the specific battles that you all might use a sword or a baseball bat or a shovel to do. Can you talk about some of the ongoing since 2000 besides highway 370, some of the issues you all have been engaged in?

Mike Checkett: Yeah, one of them before myself that was really important was that Great Rivers was able to partner with others and build awareness and get the expansion of Smart Airfield to stop. There’s a small private airfield, believe it or not, in the northeastern end of the confluence and they were looking for federal grants and dollars to pay to have that whole airport expanded and for the runways to be lengthened so that they can now have jet traffic in there. And as you can imagine, the idea of having an active in this private air field and private airplanes, very lightly used. But they wanted to allow jets and other aircraft in there at much higher rate and you can imagine what the impacts would be if all of a sudden we had a very active airport in the middle of 2/3rd of the nation’s migratory waterfowl that are coming down this area. So we fought that and we’re able to convince the County Council and others to stop that expansion plan. That Senate Bill to stop, TIFF was really important, we’ve stopped several different levee proposals that we’re looking at levying up more land so that they can take that land out of the floodplain, which really is negative in 2 ways. One, it removes natural habitat and agriculture, we partner hand in hand with farmers because we want this ground to be wetland habitat, farming or recreational. So agriculture works well in our area as wildlife habitat and we partner with ag. But when they levy ground off, it takes it out of ag, it takes it out of natural habitat and then all that water that would have flooded there goes on everybody that’s left. We fight those issues and just recently in January and February, I’ve testified twice over in Maryland Heights to fight an 800 unit apartment complex that they want to build in the 100 year floodplain right next to Creep Core Lake. And back in July, when we had that 10 inch rain that made national news, that property was under 4 foot of water for almost 3 weeks. And to me, that’s insanity that we would allow a developer to go in there and purchase that ground and dig it up and lift some of it out of the floodplain so they can build their apartment complexes and their parking lots and create what they’re calling a flood retention area that they think is habitat, but it’s basically just a sterile pond. But the biggest thing is it’s going to bring 800 plus families into these units in harm’s way. Flooding only impacts humans when it involves humans. When it floods the agriculture, the farmers know how to deal with that.

Ramsey Russell: You know and I know too, when those first 800 units get built, there will be more behind them. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Mike Checkett: And the insanity of it is when they flood, they’ll look to all of us as citizens to help pay for the insurance damage. And so we’ll pay for it on the front end and again at the back end whenever the flooding occurs. So those are some of the things that we continue to fight, we monitor policy at the different state and local levels, city and county levels, there’s a water contamination issue in St. Charles right now where the well fields, 5 of their 7 wells have been contaminated and they’re looking to move that well field to a different area. Well, one of the easy places they thought they could move it to was on a duck club in St. Charles. And we stepped up immediately and our board, including Mr. Busch, made sure that the mayor and others there in St. Charles knew that that was not going to be something that we would be interested in seeing happen. I think we fortunately have stopped that one before it even got started. But those kind of things pop up all the time.

Ramsey Russell: It’s a constant fight, isn’t it, Mike? Habitat conservation, preserving habitat, this day and age is a constant fight, isn’t it?

Mike Checkett: Is it. We have one of the fastest growing areas is called Newtown here in St. Louis and it’s stretching up towards the confluence and they’re basically building on the high ridge right now, but they’re looking to get into the floodplain when they can and we’re fighting that. We’ve got a generational change we’re worried about because as farmers retire and they don’t have kids that want to farm anymore, they’re going to sell that land and we don’t know who’s going to buy it and what it’s going to end up in. I guess job security in one aspect but it’s a fight that I go to sleep thinking about and I wake up thinking about and we work on every day. And again because we feel this area is so important not just to the confluence in our own personal interests, but because it’s such a key area for the continent. There’s no other place. Sacramento Valley guys out there will say they have a higher concentration of habitat and duck clubs and they certainly are very important to the Pacific Flyway. But I think we may beat them. But I haven’t quite done that work yet to be able to tell exactly who’s bigger but both critical areas for waterfowl and their respective flyways.

Conservation Without Money Is Just Conversation

I moved up here to St. Louis with Ducks Unlimited to work and raising money because I realized, you don’t get conservation without money.

Ramsey Russell: How do you fight the fight? You’ve mentioned Ducks Unlimited several times so obviously you’ve got some keystone partners that you collaborate with on a lot of these issues.

Mike Checkett: Absolutely. I moved up here to St. Louis with Ducks Unlimited to work and raising money because I realized, you don’t get conservation without money. In fact, there was a gentleman up here that is well known conservationist, Johnny Bells that used to say that, “conservation without money is just conversation”. I came up here to help raise money for continental programs and I grew up here originally so I built contacts through that and now with Great Rivers and we work with corporations and individuals to support our programs. We work with conservation partners in the federal arena, US Department of Agriculture, US Fish & Wildlife Service, Missouri Department of Conservation, other nonprofits like Ducks Unlimited, Delta Waterfowl, American Rivers, National Wildlife Federation. We’ve actually been instrumental in a partnership that involves around the confluence, it’s the Mississippi-Missouri Rivers Confluence Partnership and we’ve had two different leadership summits and about 40 to 60 groups that are active in that and we do a lot of monitoring of policy and issues that are going on the Illinois River, the Missouri River and the Mississippi River. And so yeah, it’s a myriad of different programs, I’m becoming the dumb field biologist that talks too much right now.

Ramsey Russell: Happens to the best of us, Mike.

Mike Checkett: But it’s like any of the fights, you’ve got to raise the money, you’ve got to build the awareness, the education of people and then do the work on the ground or in the policy world.

Ramsey Russell: Got to give a shout out to my boys at Boss. What is cases for conservation?

Mike Checkett: Well, the guys that are Boss are very conservation minded. I think while they’re interested in selling shotgun shells they really promote what they’re making as a conservation tool in shotgun shells that are more efficient and help reduce crippling rate and those kind of things. And when I first got this job, I reached out to those guys, I had been shooting Boss for about two years and said, hey, I think we could partner on something here. The long and the short is they’re a point of sale, they sell direct to consumer, well, we do direct to our membership and our supporters. And Boss is kind enough to give us a portion of the sales. So that partnership, its second year now and raised many thousands of dollars for the conservation work we’re doing here in the confluence and good guys that have, I think, ducks at heart and like yourself. It’s fun to be around people that are ate up with duck hunting, that are in it for the right reasons and want to do good and bring that to the general public.

Ramsey Russell: We all want to shoot ducks, Mike. I mean, we’re all duck hunters, you’re a duck hunter, I am, they are, the listeners are. But one of the big differences in now versus when I was sitting in Kaminski’s classroom 25, 30 years ago is I’m not just a kid, I’ve got to play a more active role, I’ve got to do what I can do to preserve what’s left of habitat for my hand me down tradition. I can’t just sit around on the sidelines and shoot ducks. I’ve got to do something besides that now or we’re going to lose it all, I feel like.

Mike Checkett: That’s what I appreciate about you. It is. I’m the same way, we all go through different aspects of our hunting as we start and move through our hunting career early on, I recognize the importance of conservation, essentially. I didn’t start out as a duck biologist, I was actually in business and hotel restaurants way back in the day. But I love duck hunting and I figured, I think a lot like you, I said, I got to figure out something that I can work on ducks every day or I’m going to go crazy. And so I went back to school and got into the conservation world, but if we don’t take care of it, nobody else will. For there to be waterfowling for our kids and their kids, we’ve got to do the work and carry the load and sometimes make up for the mistakes of the previous generations. As I said, 90% of the wetlands were drained here in Missouri, that’s a huge loss. And so we’re trying to make some of that back up, but more importantly, just make sure that there’s places for ducks to go so that my kids and their kids and everybody on will be able to hunt them, whether it’s on private ground or public ground.

Ramsey Russell: Mike, it’s good to be back in touch with you and I appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule, fighting a fight to come on to Duck Season Somewhere and tell us about the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance, I really do. Thank you.

Mike Checkett: Well, I was excited to see you in the confluence and more so to get a chance to reach back out. And yeah, I enjoyed reconnecting again and tell folks, go hit GRHA on your computer, check out our website again, we’re trying to do good stuff to take care of ducks while they’re here and make sure when they come down to you all that they’re fat and ready for the pot.

Ramsey Russell: Folks, you all been listening to Mike Checkett, Executive Director for the Great Rivers Habitat Alliance. You all can learn more about them by going to Go check them out, you might enjoy that, I bet you do. Thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, we’ll see you next time.


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It really is Duck Season Somewhere for 365 days. Ramsey Russell’s Duck Season Somewhere podcast is available anywhere you listen to podcasts. Please subscribe, rate and review Duck Season Somewhere podcast. Share your favorite episodes with friends. Business inquiries or comments contact Ramsey Russell at And be sure to check out our new GetDucks Shop.  Connect with Ramsey Russell as he chases waterfowl hunting experiences worldwide year-round: Insta @ramseyrussellgetducks, YouTube @DuckSeasonSomewherePodcast,  Facebook @GetDucks