Elk Return to Missouri
By Dave Pace, Missouri State Chair
Wild elk haven’t bugled in the Missouri Ozarks for more than 150 years—but they will this fall!
Just after daylight on May 5, 2011, with early morning sunlight penetrating the oak trees, an 18-wheeler eased down a ridge with Missouri’s new elk herd on board: six bulls and 28 cows and calves. Wildlife managers herded the elk off the truck into temporary holding pens at the Peck Ranch Conservation Area, and after an initial burst of energy, the animals relaxed and fed on the new clover growing in the pens.
In 1999-2000, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and the RMEF teamed up on a survey to determine if Missourians wanted elk returned to the state. The answer was yes. But fears associated with chronic wasting disease (CWD) stopped any restoration efforts at that time. Much more is now known about CWD and a live animal test for the disease is available. In 2010, MDC conducted a second feasibility study which determined that Missouri was indeed ready to have elk roam the Ozarks once again. The RMEF stepped forward to be a primary partner in the endeavor, committing funding assistance, technical expertise and volunteer labor.
In late January, biologists from Kentucky trapped elk from their burgeoning herd and put them through a rigorous 93-day disease testing protocol before transporting them to Missouri. To minimize stress on the elk and allow them to acclimate to their new home, MDC staff elected to do a “soft” release into secluded temporary holding pens—one for adult bulls, another for adult cows and a third for yearlings—before releasing them to the wild.
While in the holding pens, the elk underwent more disease testing. Many of the cows were pregnant and five gave birth to calves. All the elk, calves included, were fitted with GPS tracking collars paid for by RMEF. The collars will help MDC biologists determine the animals’ habitat preferences and ranges.
On June 2, the gates to the holding pens opened and Missouri now has at least 39 (additional cows were pregnant at the time of release) free-ranging wild elk roaming the rugged hills and valleys of the 346-square-mile elk restoration zone. The MDC plans to release up to 150 elk in the future, as well as hold a limited hunting season once the herd is well-established to help manage the herd’s size.
RMEF members played a huge role in elk returning home to Missouri. Our volunteers spent countless hours calling and writing state legislators to get their support for the reintroduction. Many were on hand to help the MDC with site cleanup and construction of the holding pens on the Peck Ranch. We will be hosting several events around the state in the coming months to celebrate the elk’s return—including ones held by three new chapters.
I had the pleasure of being there for the elk’s soft release into the holding pens, and I must say the hair stood up on the back of my neck when they stepped off that trailer. My emotions represented those of all our hardworking RMEF members and volunteers. Pat yourselves on the back, folks. You deserve it.
Missouri elk country—another success story for RMEF!
To learn more about Missouri’s elk, visit the MDC website