Oklahoma’s Natural Treasure, Cookson Wildlife Management Area

Cat­e­go­ry: Wilder­ness
Date Pub­lished: Novem­ber 14, 2019

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. 

 

 

W. D. Heckathorn has writ­ten arti­cles for peri­od­i­cals and news­pa­pers over the last 30 years. He grad­u­at­ed from NSU with a bach­e­lor in Sci­ence. He acquired his Mas­ters of Sci­ence from Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas, Fayet­teville. He worked for US Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice until retir­ing in 2010.

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