Oklahoma at certain times of the year rivals all other states for natural beauty especially in the fall when the trees explode with color. Oklahoma is the only state in the country that offers outdoor experiences with distinct ecosystems such as the Eastern deciduous forest, cross-timbers, tallgrass prairie, mixed-grass prairie, to short grass prairie, Rocky Mountain foothills to cypress swamps, hardwood forests to pine-covered mountains, and desert ecosystems. Oklahoma can be described as the state where the Eastern United States forests transition into the typical landscape of the Western United States consisting of short grass prairie, deserts, and mesas.
Certainly one of the jewels of Oklahoma is Cookson Hills Wildlife Management Area (WMA), consisting of 14,725 acres in southeastern Cherokee and southwestern Adair Counties. The WMA can be accessed off of Blue Top Road 5.6 miles east of the small town of Cookson, Oklahoma that is rich in late 19th and 20th Century history. The infamous bank robber Charles Arthur Floyd, better known as “Pretty Boy Floyd,” would hide out in the wilderness near Cookson to evade the law during the Great Depression Era of the 1930s. In 1896, Jack Cookson opened a Post Office from his homestead, thus the first Cookson address in Indian Territory existed. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in 1947 began damning the Illinois River, creating Tenkiller Lake. Many of the original Cookson buildings and homestead remain under Tenkiller Lake as a reminder to us that all is ephemeral except our hearts. Some of the structures that could be moved were relocated to the current location of the current town of Cookson including the actual Cookson General Store that was originally located on the Illinois River and operated by George Stratton and his family.
Cookson Hills WMA is located within east-central Oklahoma and is the southernmost extension of the Boston Mountains which are the southern extent of the Ozark Plateau. These eroded mountains range in height to 1,500 feet above sea level. The rugged ridges run mostly North and South with narrow valleys separating the ridge tops. The valleys have clear rocky bottom streams. The fauna is very typical of eastern deciduous forests with these mountains being the western edge of its range giving way to Oklahoma cross timbers and prairies. With an annual rainfall of 43.36 inches, Cookson WMA supports very tall and large trees including several species of white and red oaks, maple, walnut, hickory, and pine trees are the dominant vegetation. The relative poor rocky soils and sufficient rainfall grows trees to sizes that compare to a forest of the eastern United States such as the Appalachians or Smokey Mountains.
Cookson WMA is owned and managed by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife & Conservation (ODWC). They opened Cookson to the public the entire month of August, but the gates are closed September 1, to vehicle traffic until October 1 each year where the gates are opened for hunters that pursue mainly deer and turkey in fall with bow and arrow. They close the gates in September is to allow the elk to breed without interference from tourists. The gates are then closed again the opening weekend of muzzle-loader season which usually begins the last weekend of October. The ODWC then has controlled lottery hunts for deer and elk through October to early December. The gates are then opened again for bow hunters for deer hunting.
We interviewed the ODWC Area Manager for Cookson WMA, Mr. Curt Allen. He told us that Cookson WMA was purchased in 1948 and completed and opened for the purpose of restocking the state’s deer herd in 1950. They captured and transported deer from the Southeast area of the state to Cookson. By 1965 a noticeable browse line had appeared in the Cookson’s tree line so they stopped relocating deer to Cookson and probably captured some deer from Cookson to restock other parts of the state. Browse lines in woodland ecosystems occur when ungulates such as deer and elk overpopulate an area and food becomes short in supply. Overpopulated deer populations will actually eat every branch on the trees to a height of the deer standing on their hind legs. (Note that early records of many of our managed wildlife and natural areas in Oklahoma are vague or lost in long-forgotten dusty file cabinets or institutionally forgotten as people retired.)
Curt Allen went on to tell us that the elk were brought in from the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge during the late 1960s. Elk were indigenous to the Cookson Hills area, but that particular elk subspecies went extinct due to unregulated hunting during the early 1900s. By the 1970s the ODWC could see that the elk transplants were not thriving as they had in other parts of the state. They soon discovered that the elk were suffering from a parasite commonly called brain worm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis) which is a nematode that if ingested will infect elk and white-tailed deer. The deer which are native to Oklahoma have a natural resistance to the brain worm, but the elk from Wichita Mountains are Rocky Mountain elk that have little natural resistance to brain worm. The symptoms are similar to mad cow and wasting disease in that the infected animal begins wasting away from lack of feeding and they become susceptible to predators because they lose their fear of danger and the ability to flee danger. Curt said, “They have had to euthanize elk in the past that became infected”. He also said, “Through burn management, ODWC has eliminated much of the habitat of the intermediary host, the small terrestrial snails, and slugs that the elk inadvertently consume by eating tall grasses under the forest’s canopy. Do to ODWC efforts, the elk population has remained healthy and stable in Cookson WMA. Currently, Cookson WMA has an annual lottery tag for bull elk and one tag given to the highest bidder at an auction. All funds are used to manage habitat for the elk. In addition, the elk population has thrived to the point where hunters can buy a tag over the counter and hunt elk that leave the refuge onto private lands that border the WMA.
Curt also told us that Cookson WMA was used to restock much of the state’s Eastern wild turkey in the 1970s. Today hundreds of turkeys roam the hillsides of Cookson WMA. A rather new addition to Cookson is the black bear that have immigrated from expanding Arkansas black bear populations. Black bears in Cookson are not open for any hunting season. However, as the black bear population has increased on private lands in eastern Oklahoma, the ODWC does have a current black bear season in theses certain Oklahoma counties. As always check your regulations before hunting.
If you can make the drive to Cookson WMA when it is open to the public it will be a day well spent. The roads are gravel and dirt but, well maintained. Do not try any roads that are posted as “4 X 4” only they are not kidding and you will likely get stranded. Stay to the main roads, go slow, and have your cameras ready because you will see beautiful views and wildlife.