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The Ozark Plateau is the most expansive highland region located between the Appalachian and Rocky mountains, covering nearly 47,000 square miles and spanning the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri. 

Native Americans and settlers relied on the abundance of natural resources found throughout the Ozark region for centuries. The rich diversity of wildlife, including abundant wild turkeys, small game, white-tailed deer, elk, wolves and black bear, provided regular sustenance as well as hides for warmth and clothing. 

Located in northeast Arkansas, the Boston Mountains include the highest elevations found within the Ozarks, with some peaks rising more than 2,500 feet above sea level. Known as a deeply dissected plateau, the landscape is characterized by relatively level ridgetops and stately rock outcroppings interrupted by steep valleys and ravines, often cut at least 1,000 feet into bedrock by streams and erosion. 

While the land may not seem nearly as imposing as it did when the first colonists ventured west to carve out an existence, the rugged terrain of the mountains can still seem formidable and remote. The intrinsic wildness of the Ozarks continues to offer sanctuary to even the most reclusive of species — namely the recent sightings of once extirpated cougar prowling the hills and hollers of the region. 

Ozark National Forest was created in 1908 by proclamation of President Theodore Roosevelt. Through the decades, this national forest has expanded to 1.2 million acres and now contains five designated wilderness areas, as well as several wildlife management areas. Recreational hunting and fishing are important aspects of local culture, providing critical revenue for many communities. The NWTF is actively working to improve wildlife habitat in this region, which not only benefits the wild turkey, but an array of other wildlife as well.  

With more than 500 types of trees and woody plants present, Ozark National Forest is dominated by towering hardwoods comprised primarily of oak and hickory interspersed with stands of pine. The Ozark woods can get thick, with dense, closed canopy tops blocking needed sunlight from the forest floor.  
The Bearcat Hollow WMA is one location where a creative partnership between state, federal and non-governmental organizations, including the NWTF, is establishing much-needed openings in this dense, closed canopy system. 

HELPING ELK, HELPING TURKEYS

“The NWTF is working in the Big Piney Ranger District, which is the easternmost region of Ozark National Forest,” said Jeremy Everitts, NWTF district biologist. “The northeast corner of that area is Arkansas’s elk range. The stewardship project I’m working on up there was started for the elk, not necessarily for turkeys. However, because turkeys use similar habitat types as elk, management benefits both species, as well as a suite of other game and nongame species.”

Historically, elk roamed much of the eastern half of North America, but those elk were officially believed extinct by the late 1800s. Western elk have been successfully introduced into former eastern elk range by various state fish and wildlife agencies, including the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The commission released 11 elk in Franklin County in the 1930s. This grew to a small herd of 200 animals. Within 20 years, though, that herd was gone. A second attempt was successful, with multiple elk releases occurring north of Bearcat Hollow in the Buffalo National River tract beginning in 1981. The herd now numbers around 500 animals.   

“In the northern part of the Big Piney District, forest openings of 7 to 60 acres in size were created mainly to draw elk off private land where they were causing problems with cattle and tearing down fences,” Everitts said. “Further south in that district, the openings on forest service land are 1 to 5 acres, in what would be considered a closed canopy forest.

“We have created about 1,000 acres of openings in the district I work on. Bearcat Hollow WMA is about 18,000 acres, and a good rule of thumb is forests should include about 10 percent open area. These openings are not limited to actual cleared fields, but really any open habitat. If you include the woodland restoration taking place there, I’m sure we are in that 10 percent range — where we need to be.”

According to Everitts, openings are planted with cool season forage grasses, such as orchard grass and clover. Plantings receive fertilizer and lime applications on a three-year rotation. Winter wheat or rye are occasionally planted for winter coverage, and warm season grasses are also being incorporated into the plantings. This diverse approach offers a variety of different sizes and densities of vegetation and is considered vital to successful turkey nesting and rearing.

“You definitely want a mosaic of different vegetation and habitat types for all animals,” Everitts said. “Turkeys are generalists and use a variety of habitat. Openings provide essential components of good turkey habitat that are largely absent from these long-protected tracts of forest.

“Turkeys need mature trees to roost in, as well as nearby nesting habitat and crucial brood-rearing habitat, or they simply will not use the area. Even in an open field, if the grass is taller than they are, turkeys will avoid it due to the risk of encountering predators. Brood-rearing habitat is probably the key limiting factor throughout much of wild turkey range. When turkey poults hatch they are very small. Imagine being smaller than a chicken egg. Envision being on their level and walking through a grassland, the woods or a field. If you cannot move easily, then it’s not good habitat.”

THE SHAPE OF THINGS

When viewed from above, the non-linear shapes of openings established by the Bearcat Hollow Habitat Cooperative Project are readily noticeable. In most cases, they look completely natural. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission website supports an interactive map for the entire state. This AGFC Mapper is an exceptional resource allowing users to zoom in on a given area, differentiate between public and private land, and view details such as terrain, roads and trails in a variety of modes, including satellite.  

“Any opening is beneficial to wildlife,” Everitts noted. “The size of an opening really depends on what you’re managing for and the type of terrain. The most critical factor is shape. Openings need some variability in shape. A bend, for example makes it more difficult for predators to see from one end to the other. Square or perfectly round openings should be avoided.” 

Another important factor to consider is the spacing of the openings. As Everitts points out, some openings may be relatively close with only 50 to 100 acres of woodlot to separate them, while others may be a mile apart. Ideally, openings are spread out so wildlife can use the entire tract of land. In some cases, however, terrain may present logistical challenges and the property’s layout will dictate the best spot for openings. At a minimum, each end of a given area should have an opening or one in the middle, depending on size. 

“Size and spacing really depends on management goals and the size of property you are dealing with,” Everitts said. “Thinning and burning is also very important, but often presents challenges to forest mangers due to the many guidelines and permits required.”

Everitts said this sort of management might not be practical for private landowners with smaller parcels, but by evaluating the attributes of other private land in the area, a landowner can manage for a certain component that may be missing. This can be a great way to attract birds to a property where turkeys visit only occasionally. 

The NWTF is investing important resources and manpower into the Bearcat Hollow Project. It can be tough work in the rugged Ozarks, but the resulting diversification makes it well worth the time, money and effort.  

— Jay Anglin

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