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Elk of the Ozarks

Elk were native to Arkansas, though the eastern subspecies that roamed the region already was dwindling by the time Arkansas became a state in 1836.

Still, there are reminders that Arkansas once had been a state where the elk roamed freely.

One of the oldest banks in the state was Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in my hometown of Arkadelphia (whose name was changed to Southern Bancorp several years ago).

The Elkhorn Tavern was a landmark during the Civil War battle at Pea Ridge.

In the late 1700s, elk could be found as far south and east as northern Alabama. Too much hunting and the loss of habitat meant the end of the Arkansas elk herd by the 1840s. The eastern elk, in fact, is now extinct.

The U.S. Forest Service brought Rocky Mountain elk to Franklin County’s Black Mountain Refuge in 1933. Three bulls and eight cows were transported from the Wichita National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. These elk were themselves transplants, having come to Oklahoma from Wyoming. The Arkansas herd increased to almost 200 elk by the 1950s and then disappeared.

“No one knows for sure what caused these elk to disappear,” says Mike Cartwright, the retired elk program coordinator for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission.

Poaching, no doubt, played a part in the herd’s demise.

During his first year in the governor’s office in 1979, Gov. Bill Clinton named Hilary Jones of Newton County to the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. Jones, an avid elk hunter who made regular trips to Colorado, thought elk could survive on the public lands that make up the National Park Service’s Buffalo National River and the AGFC’s Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area.

In 1981, the AGFC entered into an agreement with the state of Colorado to trade elk for Arkansas fish. Jones recruited friends to take trailers to Colorado and bring the Rocky Mountain elk east. In the years that followed, seven elk from Nebraska’s Sand Hills also were brought in.

The first elk calf was born in Arkansas in 1982.

In the winter of 1985, local volunteers raced winter storms to bring back seven loads containing 74 additional elk. Gooseneck cattle trailers were lined with plywood sheets.

“They’re mean, wild and stout,” volunteer Bobby Harrison of Jasper said of the Rocky Mountain elk. “If there was a small crack they could see through, they’d go for it. At night, the car lights coming up behind us and shining through the cracks really startled them.”

Colorado authorities built corrals of heavy-duty steel pipe frames and nylon mesh fencing to trap the elk. During the next two decades, the Arkansas herd would grow to almost 500. Now the bugle call of bull elk can be heard in the fall. The antlers of these magnificent bull elk can spread from three to five feet with five to seven points on each side.

The AGFC partnered with the National Park Service, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and local landowners on the restoration project. It has never been easy as many landowners have complained about the elk depleting pastures meant for cattle, knocking down fences, etc.

The gestation period for elk is 249 to 269 days. Calves are born in May and June.

Hilary Jones had predicted in the early 1980s, “We’ll have a hunt in 20 years or less.”

Jones died shortly before that first hunt in 1998.

“When you think of elk, you can’t help but think of Hilary Jones,” Cartwright says. “He had the vision.”

My friend Joe Mosby, who’s among the best outdoors and sports writers this state has ever produced, wrote in a piece last year for Arkansas Wildlife: “No one saw the tourism impact coming. Elk viewing has become very popular and accounts for a multitude of visitors to mountainous Newton County and the surrounding area in northwestern Arkansas.”

Mosby adds that there are times when Arkansas Highways 21 and 43 are “choked with mini traffic jams, and parking is limited. Some elk viewers park partially on the pavement and others stop on the side of the road opposite the fields and dash across to the fence to get closer looks. They are in danger from log trucks and other traffic on the road.”

Mike Mills of the Buffalo Outdoor Center told Mosby: “Some local people don’t like the parking on the side of the highway to view the elk. On some Friday and Saturday nights in the fall, there will be 60 to 70 cars lined up in Boxley Valley watching or waiting for elk. There needs to be viewing area parking established at both ends of the valley at the most popular spots.”

Mills calls elk viewing “a major fall activity” for his customers and says he has people who “come from all over to see elk and stay in our cabins.”

Hundreds of Arkansans apply each year for the handful of elk hunting permits, which were awarded during last week’s Buffalo River Elk Festival at Jasper.

The best times to see the elk are just after sunrise and just before dark.

The elk brought to Arkansas in the early 1980s were released in the Pruitt area near Arkansas Highway 7. Much of the herd migrated through the years to the Boxley Valley near Ponca.

The Boxley Valley generally is closed to elk hunting, but hunting opportunities can be found downstream in the Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area. The management area extends from Newton County east into Searcy County. It originally was known as the Buffalo River Wildlife Management Area but later was named in honor of Gene Rush, a Newton County native who worked for the AGFC for many years, eventually heading its wildlife management division.

The original wildlife management area was assembled in two parts. The first tract of 9,198 acres was purchased from 1966-73 from Paul Meers, the Eleven Sixty-Six Corp. and smaller landowners. The second tract of 7,248 acres was purchased from 1978-80 from the Sutton family.

In 2008, 2,880 acres in the Richland Valley were added to the wildlife management area. Sonny Varnell of St. Paul in Madison County, who served on the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission from 2003-08, pushed for the acquisition of the additional land, which is southwest of St. Joe and south of the Woolum access on the Buffalo River. It’s now known as the Richland Valley Sonny Varnell Elk Conservation Area.

“Hunters and observers believe the elk have changed over time,” Mosby wrote. “They say the animals are more wary, that they’ve learned about gunshots. They’ve changed where they hang out, too.

“Arkansas’ elk management, including the hunts, has been studied by other states. Kentucky reintroduced elk in 1997 in a large area of abandoned coal mines, and the herd has grown to about 11,000, the largest population among states where elk have returned.

“Michigan and Pennsylvania brought back elk about 90 years ago. More recently, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Carolina have reintroduced elk. Missouri, Ohio, Alabama and Virginia are in the beginning stages of elk programs.”

In 2002, the AGFC established the Ponca Elk Education Center just across the road from the Buffalo Outdoor Center headquarters. Housed in a log building, the center has displays of elk and other wildlife, photographs, a meeting room and a gift shop. There are also picnic tables and restrooms.

The center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. each Thursday through Monday. During October, the prime month for viewing elk, the center is open seven days a week.

On Highway 7 in Jasper, just north of the bridge over the Little Buffalo River, the Hilary Jones Wildlife Museum and Elk Information Center is open from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. seven days a week. This facility also has a gift shop.

During my visit to Newton County last weekend, I was in several places where the wonderful work of wildlife photographer Michael Dougherty of Compton was on display. He offers this advice for viewing and photographing elk: “The very best way to make sure you don’t miss great opportunities to see the elk is to drive the entire length of the Boxley Valley surveying the fields before settling on a particular herd location. At peak periods, you might find four different herds in the valley, but only one will be the best viewing and photo opportunity.

“The same applies to bull fights during the rut. I guarantee that if you don’t check out the whole valley first, you will miss out because sometimes the scene of a lifetime will be in the field next to the one you decided park at. Trust me on this. I have the shirt. … I generally make this survey before there is enough light to take pictures. Keep moving and don’t stop until you are ready to start shooting. If you stop before you intend to shoot, you may startle the animals and an opportunity will be lost. Believe me on this point.

“Drive slowly. Forty miles per hour is enough. You don’t want to hit an elk. If the elk are pooled beside the road, they are getting ready to cross. Don’t expect elk to be any more rational than whitetail deer. At 700 pounds, they pack a lot of punch. Hitting a live animal is a terrible experience. Going slow is much safer for the elk and you.

“Don’t expect the elk to move too much from day to day, but they might. If you are looking for bull fights, they can be anywhere and just about anytime during the rut, peaking in September and October. I have photographed elk fights in November and December.”

The Arkansas elk now range over 225,000 acres. In addition to Newton and Searcy counties, elk have been reported through the years in Washington, Carroll, Boone, Marion, Stone, Conway, Pope, Van Buren and even Faulkner counties.

Biologists in helicopters count elk each year. In 1994, the AGFC initiated a thermal infrared sensing project to provide more information on elk numbers and distribution.

Efforts to improve elk habitat in the Ozarks have included prescribed burns and the establishment of native grass openings. Unlike the 1950s, this Arkansas elk herd appears here to stay.

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