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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.
The farmer was forced to purchase and haul hay over the mountain, from a source 75 miles away.
“The Game and Fish, their first approach is to buy your land,” he says. “But we told them it’s not for sale, that it’s our heritage.”
The Easter freeze, last
summer’s drought and rising gas prices have farmers on edge. Game and Fish Deputy Director David Goad, who has been meeting with farmers in Searcy County, acknowledges the elk are adding to their woes by eating the farmers’ crops.
“Animals know where the best groceries are at and they are going to go get ’em,” Goad said. “And if an adjacent neighbor has a hay meadow that he has fertilized and limed, they will get to it.”
So the commission is looking at ways to improve public elk habitat, like restoring savannah in the 17,652-acre Gene Rush Buffalo River Wildlife Management Area near Hasty.
“We’ve done a lot of work up there,” Goad said. “Created larger openings, planted native warm and cool season grasses, even fertilized some fields.”
The commission is looking at ways to compensate farmers for property damage.
Goad said farmers coping with nuisance elk could create conservation easements on their property through a federal farm bill program like WHIP — Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program.
Game and Fish has partnered with the Natural Resources Conservation Service via WHIP to provide cost-share incentives for private landowners to establish and maintain permanent openings, waterholes and forage for elk.
This year, NRCS in Arkansas will provide a 75 percent cost-share for implementing specific conservation practices like clearing land, planting cover crops and riparian herbaceous cover, mulching, doing prescribed burns, wetland restoration, forest stand improvement and building fences. Since elk require savannahs to woodland, NRCS contracts tend to focus on forest thinning and prescribed fires.
In Searcy County last year, 10 WHIP contracts were approved for a total of $86,000. Of that, $39,000 went toward elk habitat. NRCS has less funding this year, so only two WHIP contracts were made.
“We want to be good neighbors,” Goad said. “We want folks to like us, but we have some work to do, that’s just a fact.”
Some farmers believe the commission is biding its time, hoping they will throw in the pitchfork and sell off their land.
This spring one family finally did so after years of haggling with Game and Fish. They agreed to sell their 2,700-acre parcel adjacent to the Gene Rush-Buffalo River WMA to the state for $8.3 million. The land had been in the family for nearly 200 years, a family member said.
Other elk opponents are looking to the Searcy County Quorum Court for help.The court just approved wording for a petition for redress of damages and future protection. Searcy County Judge Johnny Hinchey says if push comes to shove, he will circulate it among farmers. Their last resort is to litigate.
“If they like their elk, they are going to have to make it up to the private land owners,” Hinchey said.
“The elk is a wild animal,” Hinchey said firmly. “They’ll never stay on the park. Game and Fish can buy all the land they want, but there is no way to make a wild animal stay in one place.”
Seated in the law library adjoining the Searcy County courtroom, Hinchey laid his large palm down on a sheet of paper. On it was a list: the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. He said nearly 14 percent of the county is now in the public domain. Just this month the commission spent $8 million on nearly 3,000 acres along the Buffalo National River north of here.
“If your cattle get on the park service? They fine you,” Hinchey said. “But if the elk come on your land? Too bad.”
This is the second term for Hinchey. Before that he worked construction, and it shows in his physique. But instead of using muscle to fend off trouble, Hinchey is resorting to the rule of law to protect local farmers. The past five quorum court meetings have been dedicated to nuisance elk, with attendance swelling from six to nearly 60 farmers.
“Through the years, Game and Fish promised so many things,” Hinchey said. “They was gonna help you, gonna help with the crops, give money back to the community. But it’s never happened. People are getting real disgusted with the Game and Fish.”
The Searcy County Courthouse stands several blocks off busy state Highway 65 on the old Marshall town square — population 1,300. Ruddy-faced farmers in blue overalls and heavy boots tromp into the revenue office, then off to the feed store or local cafe.
One third of Searcy County’s 8,000 residents live below the poverty line. The average income for a family of four is around $25,000. Most everyone works two jobs.
Making money here is a challenge, farmers say. They blame the Buffalo River. The clear turquoise-green river is under both federal and state protection. That means heavy industry, including factory farms, is strictly prohibited anywhere in the watershed. But canoeing, kayaking, hiking and elk watching are strongly encouraged.
On the far eastern edge of Newton County is where Paul Martin used to cultivate river bottom row crops of corn and milo.
But the elk put a stop to that years ago. Although he still has the combine and grinder mixer, Martin says he is now forced to spend $15,000 a year on feed for his animals.
“I had to completely change my operation,” he said.
Sitting on his porch swing, Martin, a tall broad man with thick silver hair and kind blue eyes, watches a thunderstorm roll over his ridgetop farm near Western Grove. He says his forebears settled this land a century ago. Now his family tends 150 head of cattle along with 150 goats. He and his wife Irene also drive a school bus, morning and afternoon, to make ends meet.
Martin reckons elk caused $20,000 worth of damage over the past 19 years. Some days he’s counted 70 elk grazing in his pasture.
“I used to put up round bales, stack ’em in the field, then haul them out maybe when I got more time,” he said. “But those bulls with those antlers tear them to pieces. So now when I bale ’em, I gotta haul ’em.”
Through the years Martin tried to negotiate with Game and Fish, but gave up. He warns other farmers coping with nuisance elk they’ll fare no better. Game and Fish makes lousy neighbors, he said.
“I lived up here all my life,” he said. “When my cows get out and do somebody some damage I do something about it. Not next month, next five years. I do something about it now.”
Another thing that irks Martin is that although Game and Fish officials claim a nuisance elk plan is pending, no farmers have ever been invited to the table. Martin says farmers have pitched a $25 per acre reimbursement. Game and Fish countered with $17 an acre — but then withdrew it contingent on an appraisal. And most recently, Martin says, they made this offer:
“Now let’s just let bygones be bygones, let’s start from this point — from now.” But that was way too little too late, Martin said.
Turns out the Ozark Mountains may be too tight a fit for Rocky Mountain Elk.
Jacqueline Froelich is a freelance writer and public radio producer working in Fayetteville. She once ran a large herd of guinea fowl on her 40-acre homestead north of Eureka Springs — until they were extirpated by hungry owls.