Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Thousands of visitors drive deep into the Buffalo River National Park every year to catch a glimpse of immense Rocky Mountain elk feeding on rich bottomland pasture. They thrill at the sight.
Native Ozark farmers cringe.
For almost two decades, some complain, elk have broken into their fields and ravaged their crops. The state Game and Fish Commission, which introduced the herd, is wearing out its welcome.
The Rocky Mountain elk is not native to Arkansas. But the Eastern elk is — or was up until 1840 when it was hunted into extinction. A hundred years later, the U.S. Forest Service sought to bring elk back to Arkansas. They released 11 Rocky Mountain elk along the Black Mountain Ridge of Franklin County. Poachers took them out, too.
In the early 1980s, Game and Fish, working with private citizens, released 112 elk onto public land in Newton County. Nearly a third died, but slowly the herd gained a footing. Rangers in a helicopter flyover last winter counted 321 in the 315,000-acre Buffalo River watershed.
The elk now range over 315,000 acres, only 27 percent of which is publicly owned: 85,000 acres 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.
White-tailed deer look puny compared to their brawny elk cousins. A healthy bull can weigh up to 800 pounds, a cow around 500. Bulls have arching velvet-covered antlers that weigh up to 40 pounds.
Those antlers come in handy not just for fighting other elk but ripping into barb-wired fencing as well. Broken fences allow elk in and cattle out, which frustrates ranchers like Jeff Magness, who owns 250 acres in the Richland Creek Valley near Snowball.
“I’m a young man and I’m taking on some of my grandparents’ land,” Magness said. “It’s the home place and I’m trying to go on. But this is making it hard. I can’t hardly do nothing.”
Magness’ family, Ozark farmers since the 1800s, owns another 500 acres and together they run a hundred head of cattle. Chances are their ancestors hunted plenty of Eastern elk off their homesteads. But this generation can only stand by as the Rocky Mountain elk range from their protected habitat to plunder their private property.
“My folks, they grow all their vegetables and beef the old way,” Magness said softly. “Last summer we had big pretty garden all ready for winter. Well, here them things came and ate it all up.” For the first time in memory, he said, the family had to purchase all their produce at the local grocery store.
Hay fields are especially vulnerable. Last summer, when the Magness family raked the first crop, they only got 15 bales — in a field that typically yields over 60. The second cutting was worse. He put up fences, but elk can leap 7 feet into the air from a standstill; they also can crush the fences.
Magness called in Game and Fish agents, showed them wide trails cutting through the field and piles of elk manure.
“The only thing I got out of them was a handful of rubber bullets for my shotgun to run ’em off,” Magness said.