Reintroduction of Elk

creatures thriving again in Ozark mountains

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Photography by Corbet Deary

With the Christmas season only days away, I considered writing about reindeer. But there was one major problem — these critters are not native to Arkansas.

That in mind, I opted to go a little different direction. Although Rudolf does not fall into this category, I felt it would be nearly as good to highlight yet another interesting cervid, a critter that has a long history in Arkansas. That’s right, we’re going to talk about elk.

The landscape in Arkansas was once much different than it is today. Prior to the logging boom and the realization that farming would prove a huge industry, practically all of Arkansas was wooded.

Back in the day, blue stem forests thrived throughout the Ouachitas, lending to towering pines taking root in fields of sage and other grasses. In fact, according to information posted on www.aetn.org, this particular section of the state “was the largest single expanse of shortleaf pine in the United States. In earlier times, buffalo and elk grazed on bluestem grasses that grew beneath these tall pines.”

Well, with the logging boom came an extreme change of environment. Hardwoods thrived in bare soil and the landscape would never be the same again.

With this change of environment came a noticeably different habitat. Of course, many animals benefitted from from the new growth of hardwoods and pines. But others simply didn’t fair too well.

Over-hunting had an adverse effect on the elk and buffalo populations throughout Arkansas. But one would also suspect that this drastic change in habitat would play a role in their demise, as well.

Regardless of the reason, these two species eventually became extinct throughout the state. According to information posted on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s website, eastern elk (Cervus elaphus canadensis) herds were completely depleted no later than the 1840s.outdoors3

The U.S. Forest Service did, however, introduce Rocky Mountain Elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) to the Black Mountain Refuge in Franklin County in 1933. Three bulls and eight cows were released during the project.

During the early stages of the program, it appeared the project would be a success. By the mid 1950s, the herd had increased to an estimated 200 head. But for an unknown reason, they eventually all vanished.

It has been speculated that the reasons for the elks’ demise were three-fold. Of course, mortality played a role. But it has also been suggested that poaching and a dwindling habitat were also possible factors.

The first effort to reintroduce elk to the state was a flop, but that was no indication all efforts would be aborted.

In fact, the AGFC embarked upon yet another elk restoration project in 1981. During the next four years, 112 elk were acquired from Colorado and and Nebraska, and transported to the Ozark Mountains, specifically Newton County.

Released in close proximity of the Buffalo National River, the large cervids were closely monitored by AGFC and National Park service personnel. Nearly 35 years later, their efforts appear to be a success.

According to data, the herd is now estimated at in the neighborhood of 450 head. Today’s elk range in Arkansas consists of about 315,000 acres. Of that property, 85,000 acres consist of public land. National Park Service and National Forest lands are among this public property, as is the AGFC Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area.

Of course, this project’s success is a result of countless hours of management practices. National and state agencies, as well as private entities, have taken steps to ensure habitat is available for these large, beautiful creatures.

The efforts devoted to improving elk habitat on the Gene Rush WMA is but one example. In cooperation with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the AGFC’s endeavors have led to significant returns.outdoors1

The National Park Service cooperation has also proved of huge importance. In fact, it has focused on improvements of habitat along the Buffalo River con- sisting of more than 95,000 acres.

Some of the National Park Service’s practices include prescribed burns, planting plants that are beneficial to this species and providing native grass openings.

As a result of the hard work and perseverance of those who have played a role in the reintroduction of elk to Arkansas, we all benefit.

Those with a passion for hunting who are lucky enough to draw a permit are able to actually hunt these animals within hours of home. And those who are more interested in watching them go about their everyday rituals are likely to get some good views with no more effort than embarking upon a pleasant drive to the Ozarks’ Boxley Valley.

Regardless of one’s favorite outdoor activity, there’s something special about seeing these beautiful creatures roaming in the Ozarks. And thanks to the work of many we will likely continue to enjoy this luxury for years to come.

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