Elk population at the J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve had, at one point, more than tripled since being re-introduced to the area 10-plus years ago.
But for various reasons, the population has dwindled back to original numbers, according Jeremy Tubbs, preserve manager.
“Right now, the herd count is about 23,” said Tubbs. “We started out originally with 20 elk, and at one time, we had 72.”
Tubbs attributes most of the loss of elk to depredation permits that were issued a few years ago, when the North American elk were reportedly causing problems for three or four Scraper area landowners. The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation issued enough permits for dozens of the wandering elk to be killed by landowners.
A few may have been hunted in-season, though Tubbs doesn’t believe very many were lost that way.
At one time, many of the elk were electronically tagged, which allowed preserve personnel to monitor the herds. The ODWC and preserve had an agreement that the elk would be considered free-roaming. A former preserve manager said some elk traveled as far as Arkansas and then returned to the preserve.
Tubbs said a few remaining elk – the oldest of the bunch – are tagged, but most were born after the original elk were re-introduced to the area, and haven’t been tagged.
Complaints about the elk being a nuisance have also subsided, said Tubbs. Personnel worked for some time to increase the on-site feeding opportunities for the animals.
“We really haven’t had any problems since last spring,” said Tubbs. “The elk stick pretty close.”
The preserve was formed more than 10 years ago in northeastern Cherokee County, east of State Highway 10. Personnel have worked since then to restore and maintain the natural plant and animal communities of what was once a cattle ranch.
Bermuda and fescue fields have been replaced with tallgrass prairie and woodland to re-create a native landscape. Officials have used controlled burns for the process.
Elk, which had been absent from the Ozarks region for more than 150 years, aren’t the only wildlife visitors to the preserve will experience.
A few years ago, black bears were spotted, and officials believed at least two were residing permanently on the land.
“We picked one up on one of our game cameras, and had a couple of sightings,” said Tubbs. “We haven’t had any sightings recently, but people can come out and they may see deer, all sorts of birds, an occasional bobcat and coyotes.”
Private and public groups occasionally meet at the preserve for bird spotting or other educational experiences.
The preserve is set up with three hiking trails, open to the public during the daylight hours. Two begin at the headquarters, on the east end of East 685 Road, and one begins a few miles west of there.
Members of The Nature Conservancy are also invited an annual winter hikes and spring hikes, to get a special glimpse of the preserve.
“We take them back hiking in areas we don’t typically take the public,” said Tubbs. “You can just go to nature.org and sign up for free. Some people do make a small donation of some amount.”
Check it out
The J.T. Nickel Family Nature and Wildlife Preserve spring hike for conservancy members will be April 29, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. A spring bird count will be held May 5, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call the preserve headquarters at (918) 456-7601, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.