Wildlife & Ecology
The Ouachita Mountains abound in a wide variety of wildlife, including game and non-game species. The name "Ouachita" (Wash-it-taw) is derived from an American Indian word meaning "good hunting." Many tribes used these mountains as seasonal hunting grounds and today the Ouachita National Forest, including the area around the Talimena National Scenic Byway provide valuable hunting opportunities to the public. Deer, turkey, bear, quail, fox, raccoons, opossums, groundhogs, chipmunks, and gray squirrels are common to the area. During the past 45 to 50 years there has been a remarkable eastward invasion by some western animals. Armadillos, coyotes, and roadrunners are now common.
Along the north slopes of Rich and Winding Stair mountains are many rocky areas with deep pockets of leaf-mold and many fallen logs in an advanced state of decay. These form ideal habitat for two amphibians unique to the area: the Rich Mountain salamander and the Ouachita Mountain redback salamander.
Birdlife is abundant along the drive, especially the soaring birds. Eagles are active in winter and spring; turkey vultures and a few black vultures are permanent residents; and red-tailed and red shouldered hawks are year-round residents of the Ouachita National Forest but are especially noticeable on the drive during migrating periods. Strong updrafts and turbulence above the mountain entice these birds to perform fascinating and entertaining aerial acrobatics.
We are well known as a hot spot for watchable wildlife, and bears are at the top of the list. Spring is when the bears are on the move, which increases the odds of the public catching sight of one of these normally elusive bruins. While they can be seen most of the year, late April through May is best.
The best way to increase your odds of seeing a bear is to travel the Talimena National Scenic Byway around dusk. The park is located in the middle of one of Arkansas's largest bear populations.
Rich Mountain is a prime bear habitat. The bears can easily meet all their needs for food and water here. Plus, the vast expanses of Ouachita National Forest lands provide plenty of room for these big mammals.
During the 1950's and 60's black bears were reintroduced to western Arkansas by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Years of unregulated hunting and habitat destruction had wiped out this species. Now, after years of careful management, the bears are back.
Imagine rounding a curve on the Talimena National Scenic Byway and coming upon the ultimate symbol of wilderness, the black bear. It happens around here almost every spring day to some lucky visitors. Come try your luck at bear watching, but please remember that they are wild animals and to keep your distance as a safety precaution.
The Ouachita Mountains were at one time a westward extension of the Appalachians. Therefore the plants of the Ouachita National Forest are similar to the eastern deciduous forest. Both geographically and climatically, the area may be considered a meeting ground of several biomes or plant formation. These include plants which can be found in the northwest U.S., the southwest U.S., the Gulf Coastal Plain and the Gulf Coastal Highlands, and the prairie states.
The Ouachita Mountains are different from most mountain ranges. The ridge line runs predominantly east-west, rather than north-south. The east-west directional trend gives rise to distinct north slope and south slope plant and animal communities.
South slopes are occupied by shortleaf pines in almost pure stands or in mixed pine-hardwood forests. Common hardwood trees occupying the southern exposures are post oak, blackjack oak, black oak, southern red oak (at lower elevations), black hickory, and winged elm, with an under story of serviceberry, wild plum, and fringe tree.
Trees near the mountain crests are dwarfed and gnarled due to the constant pressure from prevailing south winds and the effect of winter icing from frequent freezing fogs, mist, and rain.
Dominant trees on the north slopes include white oak, northern red oak, mockernut hickory, bitternut, black walnut, black locust, basswood, sugar maple, red maple, and at lower levels, beech. Understory trees include dogwood, pawpaw, Carolina silverbell, American bladdernut, umbrella magnolia, Ohio buckeye, redbud, and wild hydrangea. The north slopes, in particular, are an extremely rich habitat for spring wildflowers.
On the north slopes the soil is extremely rich, dark, and moist. Rich Mountain derived its name from the unusually rich soil. One story says that the mountain was at one time the roosting place of vast numbers of passenger pigeons, and that their droppings contributing to the fertility of the soil. We now know that the slower decomposition of organic matter, especially on north slopes, is the true reason for the soil structure.