Opinion

OPINION | Curtis Varnell: Once a hunter’s paradise, Arkansas’ deer population overhunted then restored

Frederick Gerstäcker, an early explorer and author, described Arkansas as a hunter's paradise. In Pulaski county, he said, he was able to kill three or four deer a night using torchlight.

(Courtesy photo)
Frederick Gerstäcker, an early explorer and author, described Arkansas as a hunter's paradise. In Pulaski county, he said, he was able to kill three or four deer a night using torchlight. (Courtesy photo)


Finding an empty table was going to be a chore. The Dinner Bucket café was filled with noise and big burly guys wearing bright orange. The pickup trucks outside contained enough weapons to start a small war.

Getting breakfast in a small, rural town on the first day of deer season is not an easy task. Conversation ebbed and flowed as men gulped down pancakes, eggs and bowls of biscuits and gravy. Many stories were exchanged back and forth, some probably true.

Many of the men had success that morning; an astounding number reported that they had harvested two or more deer this season. This was not always the case.

When pioneers arrived in Arkansas, wild game abounded. There was plenty of turkey, duck, elk and even some buffalo. An unknown number of panther, cougar and wolves roamed the forest accompanied by an estimated 50,000 black bears. Bears were so plentiful that Arkansas was known as the bear state during the period of early statehood.

Frederick Gerstäcker, an early explorer and author, described Arkansas as a hunter's paradise. He describes hunting deer in Pulaski county and being able to kill three or four a night using torchlight.

Another explorer named George Featherstonhaugh was an 1834 visitor to the state. He described the wasteful slaughter with people killing the deer, cutting of the haunches and leaving the rest for the buzzards.

As the state grew, more and more deer were killed. Professional hunters killed deer by the hundreds and sold the meat through local markets. The deer population plummeted.

In 1916, realizing that deer were about to become extinct, the state created the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFS). At that time, it is estimated that there were perhaps as few as 2,000 deer in the entire state. A hunting season was established and a bucks-only law went into effect.

Franklin County, a prime hunting area today, could not locate one deer in the county in 1926. Extensive flooding in 1927 resulted in deer being pushed into small areas of high ground where they were easily hunted, especially by professionals using hounds.

By 1930, less than 500 deer could be found in the state. Talking to people who survived the Depression, they state that there were no large animals to hunt for food. Instead, they subsisted on squirrels, opossums and raccoons.

The federal government began to establish large refuges on public lands, areas where no deer could be hunted. The AGFC started a deer restocking program and the numbers began to increase. By 1946, there were 32,000 deer in the state. Established seasons and limited harvest continued to increase those numbers.

Even in the 1970s, deer harvest was scant and my dad was extremely pleased when he killed a small four point buck.

In 1939, only 540 deer were harvested and in 1945 there was some 3,000 killed. It is estimated that the deer population in Arkansas today exceeds 1 million. More than 200,000 deer a year are legally killed in Arkansas in recent years. Not long ago, I spotted 28 deer feeding in one large pasture, grazing like a herd of cattle.

AGFS has shown similar success with the black bear population. After reintroduction in the state, numbers have rebounded to a point we have annual limited hunts.

Real enjoyment is to travel to Boxley Valley and observe the huge elk as they travel along the Buffalo River uplands.

The last known buffalo in the state was reported to be killed in Saline County right after the Civil War. I am still waiting to see some of those majestic animals roaming the forests and highlands of the state. Their peaks surrounded by high cliffs and limited access to the top, Rich and Magazine Mountains would serve as an ideal location for a small herd.

Breakfast and the company is enjoyable. I find the tall tales about hunting prowess and the ability to kill two deer in a season hilarious. Heck, my friend's wife kills more than that with her car each year.

  photo  The establishment of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission in 1916 came as a result of the realization that deer were about to become extinct. At the time, estimates showed there were perhaps as few as 2,000 deer in the entire state. (Courtesy photo)
 
 


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