Elk once numbered in the millions and occupied habitats spanning most of North America. Unfortunately, shrinking habitat and overhunting reduced populations to a few persistent herds in the mountainous West. Had the elk not been remarkably adaptable, it might now be extinct.
The eastern elk lived in eastern boreal and hardwood forests. This was the subspecies native to Arkansas, though historical records indicate it persisted no later than the 1840s. It is now extinct.
The U.S. Forest Service introduced Rocky Mountain elk in Franklin County's Black Mountain Refuge in 1933. Three bulls and eight cows from Wichita National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma were released. The population grew to 125 by 1948, but by then, wildlife biologists were concerned about the herd's future. The herd increased to an estimated 200 by the mid 1950s and then vanished. No one knows for sure what caused these elk to disappear. Some speculate that illegal hunting, natural mortality and shrinkage of suitable range through natural ecological succession eventually resulted in their extermination.
In 1981, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, in cooperation with private citizens initiated another elk restoration project in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas. Between 1981 and 1985, 112 elk from Colorado and Nebraska were released in Newton County. All release sites were near the Buffalo National River.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in cooperation with the National Park Service monitor the elk herd. Techniques include late winter helicopter counts, field observations, periodic surveys using thermal infrared sensing equipment, maintenance of records on elk damage problems and non-hunting mortalities and collection of harvest data. Since the early 1980's elk have been reported in 14 different Ozark counties. Today, most of the estimated 600 elk in the state occur in Newton and Searcy Counties on National Park Service land along the upper and middle sections of the Buffalo National River. A small number of elk are found on private land in southwest Boone and southeast Carroll Counties. Arkansas' elk range covers approximately 315, 000 acres with 85,000 (27%) in public ownership. Public land within the elk range is composed of National Park Service land, Bearcat Hollow Wildlife Management Area (a cooperatively managed area owned by the U.S. Forest Service) and the state-owned Gene Rush WMA.
A limited elk hunt has been in place since 1998 to offer increased recreational opportunity for hunters and prevent the herd from expanding too far and causing landowner conflicts. Hunters are selected by random draw for a limited number of pubic land elk hunting permits, and landowners have a limited hunt with a quota system to control elk on private lands.