Goat's Beard Bluff Natural Area. Photo care of Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.
Goat's Beard Bluff Natural Area. Photo care of Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.

New Wildlife Management Areas in Arkansas

Editor's note- this piece is from 2023. 

Wildlife Management Areas, WMAs, are places to hunt, fish and enjoy nature and the outdoors. New WMAs have recently been added to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s WMA system. Two of these include Goat’s Beard Bluff Natural Area WMA and Sugarloaf Mountains-Midland Peak Natural Area WMA, which are on natural areas and are cooperatively managed by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and AGFC. 

Goat’s Beard Bluff Natural Area WMA 

Goat's Beard Bluff Natural Area is located along the lower portion of the Alum Fork of the Saline River. Goat’s Beard Bluff Natural Area WMA is a recent addition to the natural area system. The area protects species of state and global conservation concern, including a federally listed threatened mussel. 

“The Goat's Beard Bluff Natural Area WMA is 540 acres of property that is located in the southern end of the Ouachita Mountains,” said Jake Whisenhunt, wildlife biologist for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “In fact, the new WMA is located at the transition zone between the Ouachita Mountains and the Gulf Coastal Plain. The WMA is located in Saline County and was added into the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Wildlife Management Area system in 2023. The WMA is named for a plant that occurs there, Goat's Beard."

The area stands out due to its location in a transition zone with a wide diversity of plants and animals from both ecoregions. 

“Areas that occur at ecoregion boundaries often support more biological and ecological diversity than areas embedded deep within ecoregions,” said Theo Witsell, ecologist and chief of research at the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. “That makes these sites good, strategic targets for smart conservation, and Goat’s Beard Bluff Natural Area is a good example of this strategy for protection.”

The geology of the area also stands out. 

“Another reason why Goat’s Beard Bluff is so unique is that the shale bedrock that underlies the area includes pockets of limestone, which is uncommon in the Ouachitas,” said Witsell. “The presence of this limestone is responsible for several of the uncommon to rare plant species found there.”

The interesting name of the area pays homage to a rare wildflower called Goat's Beard that some say resembles its namesake. 

“Before Goat’s Beard was found here along the Alum Fork it was known in the Ouachitas only from a single museum specimen collected in 1948 somewhere near Mountain Pine in Garland County,” said Witsell. “This record was so far out of range for the species that it was almost excluded from the 2013 book Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Arkansas, dismissed by the editors as most likely the result of a specimen label mix-up. But we now feel confident this is a legitimate record and suspect the site of the collection was a bluff along the Ouachita River that was flooded by the construction of Lake Ouachita in the early 1950s.”

There is also another rare wildflower to keep a lookout for.

“Goat’s Beard is a rare species in the Ouachitas and its presence is significant, but the rarest plant there is the Arkansas meadow-rue,” said Witsell. “This species has a very narrow range focused on a few counties in the Coastal Plain of southwestern Arkansas and adjacent Oklahoma and Texas. Then it jumps up to a few sites in Saline and Pulaski counties where there are small amounts of limestone geology. The population at Goat’s Beard Bluff is the largest known in the state.”

Small game hunting and furbearer trapping are both allowed on the WMA and large game hunting is limited to white-tailed deer archery only. “The best fishing opportunities on the WMA are found on its northern boundary line, which borders the Alum Fork Saline River,” said Whisenhunt. 

The Saline River Water Trail can be found on the portion of the Alum Fork Saline River that borders the northern end of the WMA. Whisenhunt said that Peeler Bend Boat Ramp is located less than a mile downstream and provides access to the Alum Fork Saline River, as well as the northern end of the WMA. 

Currently, the WMA is limited to foot traffic only and the best way to access it by car is from W. Jackman Trail on the southern end of the WMA. At this location there is an area to park vehicles and access the WMA behind a locked gate. People can also access the northern end of the WMA by boating upstream from Peeler Bend Boat Ramp.  

“Along with the hunting and fishing opportunities, the WMA also provides a good destination for bird watchers,” said Whisenhunt. “The transition zone between ecoregions provides habitat diversity that can support a wide variety of bird species.”  

Sugarloaf Mountains-Midland Peak Natural Area WMA

Sugarloaf Mountains-Midland Peak Natural Area WMA is part of the Sugarloaf Mountains in Sebastian County. “The area is steep, rugged, and dry,” said Brian Infield, field biologist and assistant regional supervisor, WMD - R5, at the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “The timber is primarily post oak, hickory and shortleaf pine. All 1,191 acres of the natural area is considered a WMA and the area offers great views of the Arkansas River Valley.”

The Sugarloaf Mountains can be found on the Arkansas and Oklahoma border south of Fort Smith and the mountain range has four summits, including East Midland Peak and West Midland Peak in Arkansas. Sugarloaf Mountains-Midland Peak WMA includes East Midland Peak and part of the ridge connecting it to West Midland Peak. 

“This natural area is located in a part of the Arkansas Valley where several very different landforms and ecoregions converge,” said Witsell. “Surrounding grassland-dominated valleys, typical of low-rainfall areas to our west, bring western elements like barren, rocky glades and savannas dotted with old, stunted trees. But it also has high mountains that support high-elevation species typically found in cooler, more forested regions with higher rainfall.”

The area is home to several rare species, including the maple-leaf oak, a species that is said to be found only at high elevations in the Arkansas Valley and the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. The population that can be found at this WMA is the largest known of this type of oak.

“Of the four rare plant species known from the area, three have a restricted global range, centered on the Ouachita Mountains and Arkansas Valley of Arkansas,” said Witsell. “Ouachita indigo-bush, Church’s wild rye, and maple-leaf oak.”

“Maple-leaf oak is one of the rarest trees in the world, known only from four high elevation peaks in Arkansas,” Witsell added. “The three smaller populations were already protected at Mount Magazine State Park and two sites in the Ouachita National Forest. But the population at Midland Peak is larger than all of these others combined, so protecting it was a great accomplishment.”

As to what type of hunting can be found here, Infield said small game hunting is allowed along with archery deer and bear and spring turkey. “The area's steep, rocky ridges will make game retrieval a challenge,” he said. 

The use of ATVs or UTVs is not allowed, so hunters will need to walk in. The natural area is next to Bob Boyer Park on the northeast and Sugarloaf Lake on the northwest. Bob Boyer Park has multiuse trails and a parking area off Highway 45. Sugarloaf Lake has fishing access on the north side of the lake.