Oklahoma Summary

Oklahoma is a rich tapestry of prairie and forest ecosystems. Because of its mid-continent location and its long east-west border, Oklahoma hosts a variety of ecoregions — the plants and animals of the eastern deciduous forest, Rocky Mountain Front Range, and Great Plains all mingle within the state’s lines. This state’s broad expanse also displays a pronounced climate gradient from the humid forests of the east to the semi-arid grasslands of the Panhandle.

Rare Species and Characteristic Habitats

Oklahoma is home to a variety of landscapes and habitats. In the southeast, the Gulf Coastal Plain ecoregion maintains bottomland hardwood forests and bald cypress swamps inhabited by American alligators, sabal palms and a rich collection of aquatic plants. The rivers of the southeast contain a notably rich assemblage of fish, mussels and other invertebrates.

North of the Coastal Plain, the rugged, oak-hickory-pine forest-cloaked Ouachita Mountains contain several endemic plant and animal species, like the Rich Mountain slitmouth snail known only to talus slopes in this region. The pine-oak jewelflower occurs in habitats where open forest canopies allow more light to filter in. Lurking in the extensive cave network beneath the northeast’s Ozark Plateau region are cave salamanders and Ozark cavefish, which subsist on guano from the Ozark big-eared bat and other bat species.

The prairies of central and western Oklahoma present a rolling landscape rich in wildflowers and wildlife. All three major prairie formations — tallgrass, mixedgrass and shortgrass — occur in the state. Sometimes perceived as monotonous expanses by the uninitiated, these grasslands are the result of an intricate interplay between geology, climate and fire that produces diverse habitats fostering many species of plants and animals. In the mixedgrass prairie one finds shrublands associated with towering sand deposits and juniper woodlands in the enigmatic gypsum hills region.

The numerous springs and associated streams of the Arbuckle Mountains have carved through limestone deposits, leaving behind trails of travertine and dolomite in an ancient landscape that harbors important aquatic resources as well as the only occurrences of short-lobed oak and Ashe juniper occur. Ironically, the rare Ashe juniper illustrates a primary challenge of prairie conservation: the loss of grassland habitat due to the encroachment of woody plant species. Populations of eastern red cedar and Ashe juniper have increased explosively in some areas due to the suppression of natural fires and land conversion.

Public and Private Conservation Efforts

One of the earliest conservation successes in Oklahoma occurred in 1907, when a herd of 15 American bison arrived at the Wichita National Forest. The release of these animals at the culmination of a seven-day journey from the New York Zoo realized the dream of William T. Hornaday and the American Bison Society to reestablish a public herd of these iconic beasts that once roamed the American West. Since that time, Wichita National Forest has become the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge, one of the state’s nine NWRs that manage a large, grassland ecosystem.

At the wetter end of the scale, the extensive bottomland hardwood forest and cypress swamps of the Little River NWR protects crucial habitat for neotropical migrant birds. Migratory waterfowl and shorebirds benefit from an ambitious wetland restoration project in southwestern Oklahoma undertaken by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation known as Hackberry Flat. Once drained for cultivation of cotton, these lands have now become a popular destination for the region’s birders.

Threats

Despite Oklahoma’s conservation successes, many challenges remain. Habitat loss remains the greatest threat here as elsewhere in the country. Rapid development in north Texas increased demand for water, putting pressure on the conservation and management of water resources in southeastern and south-central Oklahoma. While several lawsuits involving the claims of municipal, state and tribal governments head to court, the region’s high aquatic biodiversity hangs in the balance.

Like its neighbors, Oklahoma is also experiencing rapid development of wind farms designed to harness one of the state’s most prolific renewable resources. The majority of wind farms lie in the western mixedgrass prairies, within the range of lesser prairie-chickens. Research has shown that lesser prairie-chickens react adversely to the presence of turbines and often abandon their leks. But with the importance of wind power as an alternative energy source, several organizations have joined together to develop protocols for placing turbines in areas that minimize the threat to lesser prairie-chickens.

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