Earth Day, April 22, is behind us, and this summer’s celebration of the 100th birthday of our National Park System is coming on August 25. So, I thought this would be an appropriate time to make some observations on the current threat to one of Arkansas’s treasures, to comment on our loss of a Yellowstone icon, and to reflect on an old friend and the fate of his kind.
The future of the Buffalo National River in northern Arkansas is still being threatened by a large factory farm on a tributary to the river. The C&H Farm, a CAFO (confined animal feeding operation), sprays untreated hog waste on fields beside Big Creek jeopardizing both surface and ground water. Big Creek flows into the Buffalo at Carver, a popular swimming hole and landing spot for canoe and kayak enthusiasts. Having begun canoeing the Buffalo in 1970, I’ve perceived this whole factory-farm endeavor an embarrassing and unthinkable nightmare – one that should have been prevented and still can be corrected.
The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) has been considered something of a joke ever since it quickly approved the permit for the farm in 2013, and its reputation isn’t getting any better. The National Park Service, this October, asked the ADEQ to declare “impaired” Big Creek and two other Buffalo River tributaries (Mill Springs and Bear Creek) because they are too polluted or degraded to meet state water standards. No action was taken. Also, the C&H’s Pollution Discharge and Elimination System permit is up for renewal this year. You would think that this would be a good time to make right the original misguided wrong. Tragically, the ADEQ has indicated its intention to renew the permit.
Earlier, there had been some hope for the revocation of the loan guarantee for the farm by the U.S. Farm Services Administration and the Small Business Administration. The agencies had been court-ordered to do a new Environmental Assessment, but the finding incredibly ignored geological evidence that had been provided by both agencies and by hydrogeologists. Although their evidence showed that the millions of gallons of hog waste would negatively impact the river, the park visitors, and the wildlife, the assessment resulted in a “Finding of No Significant Impact,” and the loan was restored in March 2016.
Today, the best hope may come from an April 29 meeting of the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission. Richard Mays, representing the Buffalo River Coalition, presented additional evidence obtained by Dr. Todd Halihan of Oklahoma State University in March 2015. Halihan used electrical resistivity imaging, and his studies indicate contamination as deep as 120 feet underneath the factory itself and 40 to 90 feet beneath the holding ponds and surrounding areas. A decision is pending.
Now, farewell to Scarface – Yellowstone’s Grand Old Man. He was a 25-year-old grizzly bear – a threatened species – and was a popular attraction in Yellowstone National Park. I was honored to see him last July. He was having lunch on berries among shrubs down a slope from the park roadway. I had stopped to find out what the crowd was looking at, cars were parked on the side of the road for as far as I could see. Everyone was thrilled. One elderly couple told me that had seen him an hour earlier while they were having lunch at a picnic spot – he had circled the ridge above them, but they could see his descriptive scar on the right side of his face. They were so proud to have seen him a second time.
A ranger said the park service wasn’t sure Scarface would make it through the winter: he was getting so old and was down to 338 pounds from 600. I suspected the old boy would do just fine. Not to be. A hunter shot him in November. The hunter claims it was a confrontational event, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is investigating. Future visitors to the park have been deprived of a wonderful experience. I guess I should feel fortunate to have been among the last to see him before a killer took that right away. I’m only sad.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in July 2015, refused to reclassify gray wolves as a threatened species. Consequently, the fate of the national recovery of the species is largely in the hands of states, which, like Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, may be particularly hostile to their survival. Idaho officials actually funded an aerial gunning operation that recently killed 20 wolves, using the ruse of trying to boost the elk population to satisfy hunters. This, of course, ignores the ecological fact that a healthy wolf population assures a healthy elk population. Some humans just can’t stand to see animals existing in the wild. It’s just something for them to kill for the fun of it.
On the bright side, in June 2014, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to protect gray wolves under the state’s Endangered Species Act. The result has been that a “Shasta Wolf Pack” has been found living successfully for a year in northern California. That state had not had a wolf pack for 91 years. Hopefully, other states will follow their lead.
Whenever a wolf is needlessly killed, I always think of an old friend, Pavi. Years ago, my sister-in-law Beth found a starving dog on the streets of Oakland, Calif. She brought it home, and she and my brother John nursed him back to health. They always thought that Pavi – they named him after the tenor Pavarotti – was a strange dog, never acting like a “regular dog.” Once they found he was a full-blooded Rocky Mountain gray wolf, his behavior made sense.
Someone had probably found him as a pup and thought he would make a good pet. When that didn’t work out, Pavi was just dumped for someone else to deal with. As a rule, wolves don’t make good pets, but, fortunately, my brother was good dog handler and became the “leader” of Pavi’s pack. John said that if he ever got attacked by someone, Pavi wouldn’t do anything until John was down – then the attacker would have deal with Pavi. John added, “Woe be he who tries to mug Beth: Pavi’s a woman’s dog.”
Once, when the three of them came to El Dorado, Ark., to visit our father J.C. Offutt, John and Beth went to Logoly State Park to do a day hike on one of the trails and left Pavi with Dad. Pavi kept standing by the back door and whining. Dad told him to settle down, “You’re not a baby. Come in here and lie down.” He did. John was more like our father than either Don (our oldest brother) or I. Pavi picked up on that.
Pavi lived happily to a ripe old age. John and Beth, tearfully, had him put to sleep in the early ‘90s. John passed away last December, and his ashes will be mixed with Pavi’s, and Beth will scatter them somewhere in the Arizona desert near their latest home.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published May 10, 2016, in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.