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. Some elk were ear-tagged and tested for diseases such as brucellosis and leptospirosis prior to release.
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 400-450 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 a small portion of National Forest land and the state-owned Gene Rush Wildlife Management Area, which borders National Park Service property along the Buffalo River.
Each year since 1991, biologists have used a helicopter to count elk in late winter along the Buffalo River corridor and in some private land areas. Counts have ranged from a low of 76 in 1991 to a high of 285 in 2000. In the Buffalo River corridor, annual calf/cow ratios have ranged from a low of 24 to a high of 51 calves per 100 cows. Bull/cow ratios have ranged from a low of 26 to a high of 60 antlered bulls per 100 cows, which compares favorably with data on established elk herds in some western states.
A thermal infrared sensing project initiated in 1994 provided more precise information on elk numbers and distribution. In February and March 1994, 312 elk were counted in areas normally surveyed by helicopter which included public and adjacent private land along the upper and middle sections of the Buffalo River, some National Forest land and private land in portions of Boone and Carroll Counties.
One hundred forty elk deaths were documented between 1983 and 2002. Poaching and disease are primary factors in these non-hunting losses.
Without suitable habitat, elk would soon disappear from Arkansas. Realizing this, state, federal and private interests have worked together to expand and improve elk habitat along the Buffalo River.
Since 1992, the Game and Fish Commission, cooperating with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, has done extensive habitat improvement work on the 18, 220-acre Gene Rush WMA. As a result, year-round elk use of the WMA has increased significantly, and more habitat work is planned for the future.
The National Park Service also wants to ensure the future of the elk herd. Their efforts to create and maintain beneficial elk habitat along the 95,730-acre Buffalo National River includes conducting prescribed burns, planting wildlife friendly grasses and legumes, reclaiming old fields, maintaining hay fields and establishing native grass openings.
Elk continue to slowly expand their range toward the mouth of the Buffalo River; however suitable habitat and the potential for developing more elk habitat on the lower portion of the river is limited. Elk have expanded their range onto private lands in Boone and Carroll County and damage problems have developed. A hunting program established in 1998 has reduced elk damage complaints on private land. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in cooperation with the USFS is currently developing plans for improving elk habitat on National Forest land lying south of the current elk range. Once good habitat is put in place elk should move into these areas and stay.
An elk hunting program was established in 1998. A total of 131 elk have been harvested through the 2002 season. Hunters are selected by a random draw for a limited number of permits valid for hunting elk in public land hunting zones (these zones do include some private land which is also open for elk hunting with landowner permission). Hunters qualifying for permits issued for a private land hunting zone (no public land within the zone) must have written landowner permission to qualify for an either-sex elk permit for these private land hunts.
New research and survey projects funded for 2002 include a bull mortality study utilizing radio telemetry techniques, a landowner survey to obtain information on attitudes and perceptions about elk and elk management, and an infrared survey designed to obtain better elk population data. An ongoing research project designed to determine if other areas in the state will support elk will be completed in 2002. Results of that study will be used by the Commission to determine if elk will be stocked in other parts of Arkansas in the future.
Interest in Arkansas elk increases each year. Certainly there is an increased interested in hunting these animals, but there are also more and more Arkansans visiting the Buffalo River area each year to observe and photograph these magnificent animals, especially in late September and early October when elk are breeding. The herd will never be large compared to herds in western states, but these elk provide unique wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities, and those who come to see and hunt them provide additional and very important revenue for state and local economies. The future continues to look bright for elk in the natural state.