MOUNT IDA – Mountains, trees, large acreages and few people – the setting should be close to ideal for the managing of wildlife and its habitat.
This is a description of a chunk of western Arkansas once envisioned as an Arkansas National Park. The park status never came about over a century ago despite the fervent efforts of an Arkansas congressman named Otis Wingo, who lived at De Queen, and a U.S. president named Theodore Roosevelt.
Today, the area is in the Ouachita National Forest. Wildlife management is mostly focused on three sizable sections that are cooperative wildlife management areas – Caney Creek, Muddy Creek and Winona. These are managed jointly with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.
First, the Ouachitas themselves are different. They don’t march to the usual mountain beat.
The Ouachita Mountains are ridges and valleys that run east and west, not north and south like the Ozarks, the Appalachians, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada of the West. That factor alone makes Ouachita trees different, with pine dominating the slopes that face the south and hardwoods mixed with pines dominating the north slopes. For wildlife, this means food such as acorns and nuts is much more plentiful on the north side of the mountains.
Caney Creek, Muddy Creek and Winona are three of the larger wildlife management areas in the state. But they are different from each other. Caney Creek WMA is the steepest and most rugged of the three. Muddy Creek has wider ridges and valleys. Winona has more rolling terrain. This all makes variety in habitat for wildlife.
Two of the three have large wilderness areas, designated as such by Congress, with only foot travel allowed. These are Caney Creek Wilderness and Flatside Wilderness in Winona.
Caney Creek WMA covers 85,000 acres in Polk, Montgomery, Pike and Howard counties of southwest Arkansas. Muddy Creek WMA is 146,206 acres in Montgomery and Scott counties. Winona is 160,000 acres in Perry, Garland and Saline counties.
There are small cities near but not within the management areas. Hot Springs is the only larger city close, although Winona’s eastern edge isn’t far from Little Rock and Conway.
What the three have in common are good numbers of turkey, deer and bear, tremendous amounts of second-growth forest and changing ecology.
This is, or was, clear cut country. Bitter battles were fought several decades back about clear cutting, the practice of stripping a tract of land clean of trees then replanting it. “Harvesting” trees with the use of heavy machinery was efficient and profitable. What it left was ugly. What it did to wildlife was hotly debated and still is.
After a clear cut, the land grows quickly with weeds, shrubs and young trees that are high in food value for wildlife. The big three of deer, turkey and bear thrive. And so do quail, doves, rabbits. Squirrels don’t. They rely on nuts and acorns of mature trees.
Then the former clear cut evolves into young trees on management areas and into pine plantations on tracts owned by timber companies. The benefits to wildlife shift. If and when the new hardwood trees reach maturity and form forest canopies, the wildlife food value changes again, with benefits to most of the species declining.