Rocky Mountain Elk Flourish in Arkansas

By Calvin Vick

Believe it or not, at one time elk were a pretty common sight in Arkansas. The eastern elk, to be more specific, was once part of the state's natural fauna. But that all changed. The eastern elk was last seen in the 1840s, and has since been listed as an extinct species in Arkansas. Over-hunting and loss of habitat are thought to be the primary factors in their disappearance.

Logging and agriculture cleared much of their habitat, and unregulated hunting damaged populations faster than they could recover. Combining both factors, it was just a matter of time before the eastern elk officially went missing. 

There are examples of eastern elk genetics in other populations around the world. For example, the elk given to New Zealand by Theodore Roosevelt showed characterizations of eastern elk. The chance of finding any pure bloodlines is very unlikely, however. So it seems there will never be a return of the eastern species. 

After the eastern elk went extinct, it was almost 100 years before Arkansans saw another elk in the wild. It was in 1933 that the U.S. Forest Service released 11 Rocky Mountain elk. They were transplanted from a wildlife refuge in Oklahoma and released in Franklin County, Arkansas. The herd thrived for 20 years before vanishing in the 1950s. No one is certain what happened to the elk, but there are some speculations...perhaps poaching and disease. 

In the 1980s, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began another elk reintroduction program, this time along with the help of dedicated Arkansas citizens. During this second reintroduction, 112 Rocky Mountain elk were set free in the Buffalo National River. The new herd thrived, and is today thought to number around 450 animals. 

 

The elk can be seen in a number of wildlife areas, but are particularly abundant in Boxley Valley. The herd roams more than 85,000 acres of public land. And with the significant amount of work invested in improving habitat, the herd is expected to prosper. 

Now in spite of elk being over-hunted in the past, there is a hunting season in place–a well-managed program with limited harvest. Hunting began again in 1998 after the population was determined to be stable. To participate in the harvest, hunters must enter a state lottery for the hopes of getting an elk permit to hunt public land. Hunters wishing to harvest on private land must apply for a special permit, as well as have written permission from the landowner. (This year, applications were received in May, and the winners announced on June 27. The actual season opens in October.)  

It might sound like hunting elk in Arkansas is a bad thing, given their history of extinction. But the truth is that the herd is now highly managed and hunting is not expected to have any significant negative effects on overall herd size. Plus, hunting has been a boon for tourism, not to mention generated more overall interest in wildlife. The elk population in Arkansas is solid, and with continued management, is expected to remain for years to come. 

Photos courtesy of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

Photos courtesy of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission