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Sylamore WMA helped comeback of deer in Arkansas

From Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

-- FIFTY-SIX – For nearly three-quarters of a century, Sylamore has been an important part of Arkansas’s deer picture.

The restoration of deer in Arkansas began just before World War II and lasted well into the 1960s. A key component was the Sylamore District of Ozark National Forest – today’s Sylamore Wildlife Management Area. It covers about 150,000 acres, mostly in Stone and Baxter counties and with small portions in Searcy and Marion counties.

There was some degree of protection years ago under the supervision of the federal government and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. More significant was the experimentation and research with deer that took place on the mountainous tract just north of Mountain View. 

Biologist learned firsthand about deer, about their habits, their requirements, about what changes in habitat could be made to improve the production of deer.

It was a natural for this work. Deer have been on Sylamore in reasonably good numbers since pioneer days when part of the area was known as the Leatherwoods, and venison was a major part of residents’ diet.

Wildlife biologists who worked on the area and many local residents recall the days of “the deer pens.” 

Two tracts, a square mile in size each – 640 acres – were designated as deer pens and were encircled with fencing high enough to contain deer. The objective was to use a large tract of land to conduct intensive habitat management practices for deer to study and compare the results. In doing this the biologists believed the turkey population would also be enhanced.

One of the pens had good oak-hickory habitat. The other had relatively poor oak-hickory stands mingled with cedar glades. The goal was to see what effect improving the habitat would have on the deer herd, specifically the “carrying capacity” or amount of deer that could live in good health on a tract. 

Food plots were planted in both pens with the greater improvements coming in the pen with poor quality timber. This resulted in an AGFC strategy of food plots on wildlife management areas throughout the state. Food plots in timber are especially significant during years of poor “mast” crops – acorns and nuts.

Recreation in the area gained momentum by the middle of the 20th Century, with the scenic beauty of Sylamore as much a drawing card as the hunting and wildlife opportunities. In 1972, Blanchard Springs Caverns were opened by the U.S. Forest Service, and visitors mushroomed in numbers. Another major factor was the growth of Mountain View as a folk music magnet.

On the wildlife scene, the improving deer herd of Sylamore was joined by good numbers of turkeys and steadily increasing amounts of bears. The squirrels were there all along, finding abundant food in the oaks and hickories in good “mast” years.

The early residents of Sylamore used deer, but they also farmed. Today, the old field systems are managed by the federal and state agencies for wildlife, and a variety of techniques are in use. Some were developed or improved on Sylamore. Burning is a regular tool, more than bush-hogging. Plantings are made on a rotational basis in both spring and fall.

Some of these fields were formerly used for cattle grazing, and fescue was planted. Fescue has little benefit to wildlife, and the food plot work as included elimination of fescue so other natural food plants like orchard grass and clover can be planted and take over. Some of the old farms and pasture lands have been replanted in timber, too.

Sylamore has hiking trails, horseback riding trails and mountain bike trails. A trail along scenic North Sylamore Creek runs from Gunner Pool to Blanchard Springs. Campgrounds are a large one with easy access at Blanchard Springs, a smaller, more remote one at Gunner Pool and a very small, very remote camping area at Barkshed.

The popular caverns at Blanchard Springs are near Mirror Lake, stocked year-round with rainbow trout and open for fishing. Several species of unique plants are found on Sylamore, and several caves are also on it – some gated to protect endangered bats and not open to public use.

On Arkansas Highway 5 between Mountain View and Calico Rock, a rifle range draws shooters throughout the year. It is a joint project of the Forest Service and the Game and Fish Commission.

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