The Buffalo National River (BNR) is our nation's first national river. It is a linear park of
approximately 148 miles and 96,203 acres that flows from the Boston Mountains near Ponca to the White River downstream
from Buffalo City. Three wilderness areas occur in the park: Upper
Wilderness, Ponca Wilderness, and Lower Wilderness. The main riparian corridor and its tributaries feature lofty dolomite-sandstone
bluffs, sizable Giant Cane colonies, and broad stretches of gravel and sand bars with the
intermittent deep pools. Terrestrial habitat types include: river forests,
mesic and dry woodlands, glade-savannahs, upland native prairie and grasslands,
karst cave systems, pastoral hayfields, warm and cool season grasses, and
In a region now experiencing rapid human population growth,
the importance of the Buffalo National River as an extensive, connected block
of habitat for maintaining Neotropical migratory songbirds and other birds
can’t be overstated. It is difficult to imagine any positive future for many
birds in the Ozarks without public lands, including the long connected corridor
of the BNR.
With the entire river corridor protected as public land, the
BNR is a critical link in a key block of public lands in the Ozarks bioregion.
BNR connects lands owned by The Nature Conservancy, Arkansas Game and Fish
Commission, and U.S. Forest Service. Taken as a whole, this public land
provides the best opportunity to manage and protect a wide range of bird
species, including many that are declining.
The BNR is an important place for birds because the avifauna
is rich and diverse. For example, Hunter et al (1979; Table 10) provided
frequencies of occurrence for summer birds of the upper Buffalo River region.
They reported 24 species of habitat specialists during summer surveys. Among
these are: Red-shouldered Hawk, American Kestrel, Great Blue Heron, Green
Heron, Killdeer, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Belted Kingfisher, Eastern
Kingbird, Eastern Phoebe, Loggerhead Shrike, Prothonotary Warbler, Worm-eating
Warbler, Blue-winged Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Prairie
Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Common Yellowthroat, Yellow-breasted Chat,
American Redstart, Eastern Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, Blue Grosbeak,
While this project occurred years ago, the fundamental
finding are supported in more contemporaneous projects, including Breeding Bird
Surveys, Christmas Bird Counts, e-Bird submissions, and surveys undertaken by
the Park Service. Leesia Marshall (2012) demonstrated the critical importance
of protected high-quality habitat for Louisiana Waterthrushes in three major
BNR tributaries. Her findings are easily applicable to other Neotropical
According Fitzgerald and Pashley (2000), of “thirty-three
species designated as species of conservation priority for the Ozark/Ouachitas
… Fifteen have greater than 5% of their global population breeding in the
planning unit. Populations of five of those (Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian
Flycatcher, Prairie Warbler, Field Sparrow, and Orchard Oriole) declined
significantly in the physiographic area between 1966 and 1996, and three (Eastern
Wood-Pewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, and Carolina Chickadee) show strong
evidence of decline.” Priority Species documented on the BNR as nesting season
(summer) birds include: Northern Bobwhite, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Pileated
Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Great Crested Flycatcher, Brown Thrasher,
Swainson’s Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler,
Prairie Warbler, Ovenbird, Prothonotary Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Field
Sparrow, and Orchard Oriole.
The Buffalo National River was recognized by American Rivers as one of the ten most endangered rivers of 2017. Threats come from across the watershed as well as
within park boundaries. Activities on adjacent private properties such as
clearing trees, cattle grazing, a confined animal feeding operation, and illegal dumping elevate the levels of
pollutants like pesticides, E. coli, and sediments entering tributaries of the
BNR. Feral hog activity is increasing throughout the park, to the detriment of
ground-nesting birds. As the number of park
visitors continues to increase, management of natural resources, including
critical bird habitat, becomes more complicated. The river was protected for
all generations to enjoy, but more people also means more impacts to water
quality and wildlife. The balance between appeasing the crowds versus aiding
wildlife is a fine line.
The Buffalo National River is owned by the National Park Service. The IBA boundary includes 140 acres of adjacent private property willingly included in the program.
The river flows through a
diversity of geomorphological conditions, which in turn create a highly diverse
landscape, from lofty dolomite-sandstone bluffs to broad stretches of gravel
and sand bars. Habitat types include canebrakes, beech-hardwood forests, glades,
prairies, and karst cave systems.
The park’s primary purpose is recreation: river floating,
camping, hiking, horse riding, bird watching, hunting and fishing. The resource
management division of the park monitors water quality and habitat degradation
and tries to remedy any problems that may arise. There is also a hay field
lease program on the park.
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