Arkansas’s first environmental education state park interprets the importance of the natural world and our place within it.
Ponca Creek gurgles behind the Ponca Elk Education Center on Highway 43 in Boxley Valley. The log lodge was built with taxpayer dollars in 2002 by Game and Fish. Busloads of school kids and wildlife seekers visit the interpretive center to hear recorded bird calls and see stuffed fox, bear and, of course, elk.
Facility interpreter Carol Villines shows off a mount surrounded by a clatter of antlers. The huge stuffed bull elk dwarfs the thin silver- haired woman. “The elk shed their antlers in late March and early April,” she recites, picking up a worn antler. “And then they begin growing as soft cartilage. It’s a fast growing bone, sometimes an inch a day.” She presses a CD player. An elk cow mews to her calf.
Peak rutting season is September and October. “We hear elk bugle in the valleys” then, Villines says, “in the early morning and late evening hours and sometimes in the middle of the night.” She presses another CD player, which broadcasts an eerie elk moan.
The largest elk herds live just outside the lodge. At dawn and near sunset, especially in the winter, they graze on lush cultivated fields on either side of the creek. That’s when visitors capture them in their binoculars and cameras. During the day elk wander off into cane breaks or forest to chew their cud, Villines said.
“Alpha bulls form harems of 18 to 20 cows. They fend off bachelor bull intrusions through sparring. The younger form bachelor herds away from the alpha herd, waiting until the dominant bull becomes too old to fight them off.” Villines says she saw a herd of 80 elk recently.
Elk hunts are also on the rise. During the 2006 harvest, 7,000 hunters applied for 18 free permits. Two permits were auctioned for $30,000 each as a fund-raiser for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Private land elk hunts are also permitted for a small fee. Hunters are required to take a class before heading off into the woods. Hunters took a total of 23 elk last year: 10 bulls, 12 cows and one male calf. Twenty more were killed by cars.
A long-time observer who asked not to be named said when elk stray off public land they are considered fair game. It’s a subject widely acknowledged but never discussed.