ST. CHARLES – Before Arkansas began to be called the Natural State, it was the Land of Opportunity – and before that, the State of Wonders. But only history buffs are likely to know one of the earliest nicknames: When Arkansas joined the Union in 1836, it was called Bear State.
Black bears were abundant here when the white settlers began to arrive. Then, a century or more of hunting and other human intrusions reduced their population in the state in the 1940s to around 50 animals.
Fortunately, conservation and restocking have increased the number of Arkansas bears to around 3,000 or so. That success is one of the stories told in a lively assortment of exhibits at the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center. These 160,000 acres of wilderness sprawl across Monroe, Arkansas, Phillips and Desha counties. Dotted with some 300 lakes, it attracts nearly half a million visitors each year.
A life-size model of a black bear family with one of the bald cypress trees greets tourists in an imposing exhibit just inside the Visitor Center on the southern outskirts of St. Charles. The figure of an adult bear stands next to the cypress, while cubs can be seen inside a hollow in the trunk. Another assorted fauna completes the set.
âThe Bald Cypress is a refuge for animals in the White River National Wildlife Refuge,â explains an information panel. “Standing like a gnarled sentry in dead lakes, its fluted trunk heaped up in inundated swamps, the cypress provides dry habitat for many species.
âAmerican black bears and a variety of wildlife inhabit large cavities. The angular branches provide shelter for songbirds. The protruding ‘knees’, which are part of the extensive root system, provide perches for birds, amphibians and to reptiles. Still water supports invertebrates and plants, providing underwater hiding places for both. “
Pushing a button produces a narration describing a mother bear’s use of a bald cypress tree. In the fall, she selects a suitable den tree with a large cavity, above the level of winter flood waters. At the end of winter, she gives birth, usually to two cubs. Blind and weighing only half a pound at birth, they are helpless for several weeks while she breastfeeds them. Able to find food on their own in the summer, they stay with her the following winter before being taken to the forest.
Bears are the largest species inhabiting the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, renamed in 2014 for the former Governor of Arkansas and United States Senator. Now estimated at nearly 400, the reserve’s bear population is doing well enough that more than 130 bears have been moved south to the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge, located outside of Crossett.
When it was established in 1935, the White River Refuge was primarily intended to protect migratory birds. It continues to provide shelter for waterfowl and other species traveling the Mississippi Flyway. About two-thirds of the roughly 350 species of birds found in Arkansas spend at least part of the year there. Besides ducks and geese, these include pelicans, loons, hawks, doves, cuckoos, owls, woodpeckers, warblers and finches.
For ambitious hikers, the Bottomland Hardwood Trail from the refuge descends an escarpment and enters the bottom. It is open whenever the White River gauge reading is 28 feet or less. The easier mountain trail, which meets the Americans with Disabilities Act, can be walked year-round.
The visitor center exhibits focus on present day nature, but there’s also a dose of history – and prehistory, dating back 10,000 years or more. On display is a replica of an American mastodon tooth. The original, found nearby on the bank of the White River, belonged to an extinct elephant ancestor who typically stood 8-10 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed 4-6 tons.
The Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, just south of St. Charles off Arkansas 1 at 57 S. CC Camp Road, is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Free entry. Visit fws.gov/whiteriver or call (870) 282-8200.