Q: A few years ago, Missouri announced that it was going to reintroduce elk in the southern part of the state. At some point, they even said they eventually hoped to offer an elk hunting season. I haven’t heard anything since, so I’m wondering whether the project flopped or just what its status is.
A.J., of Cahokia
A: After more than 150 years of being MIA, elk are indeed starting to gain a small foothold again in our neighboring state, thanks to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
However, if you want to shoot them, you’re certainly welcome to bring your camera, but leave the guns at home — at least, for now.
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For those who hadn’t heard, Missouri officials began contemplating the reintroduction of elk to Missouri in about 2000. Once abundant throughout the state, the elk population fell precipitously as early settlers flooded the West and found the animals easy prey. Making matters worse, the elk watched their habitat disappear as forests and grazing spaces were turned into farms and cities. By most estimates, the state’s last elk likely disappeared just as the Civil War ended — 1865.
“When settlers started entering the state, these people were just trying to make a living on the landscape,” the conservation department’s Lonnie Hansen said. “Elk and deer were preferred targets for providing food and clothing. A lot of killing of elk and deer went to provide skin and meat for the Eastern market. As a result, they were very rapidly extirpated.”
But by the late 20th century, states where elk once thrived began talking about bringing them back. Arkansas, for example, introduced about 100 elk in the early 1980s to its Buffalo National River area. Since then, the state has kept between 400 and 500 head flourishing. The state says the effort has boosted state tourism, both in the summer when a limited number of hunting tags are sold and in the fall when the animals put on their mating pageantry.
“We have people come from all over to see our elk,” Cory Gray, Arkansas’ elk program leader, told the Missouri Conservationist Magazine several years ago.
People, of course, mean money, so Missouri started looking to grab a piece of the elk action as well. At first, officials worried about the possibility that the beasts might carry Chronic Wasting Disease, a neurological disorder that might spread to deer. They also worried about finding suitable habitat and listened to objections from residents who feared elk could cause crop damage and present yet another chapter in the sometimes deadly conflict between automobile and wildlife. But after a decade of studying other successful programs, Missouri decided it was ready.
It has been a purposely slow and painstaking start to the program, the conservation department’s Dan Zarlenga told me. Starting in 2011, the state began bringing elk from Kentucky to two small areas of Southeastern Missouri — the Peck Ranch and Current River conservation areas, both in the Carter-Reynolds-Shannon county region of the state. To make sure the animals were healthy, they were quarantined for a time both in Kentucky and Missouri and were given thorough health checkups before being released into the wild. Roughly 40 to 50 animals were released each year from 2011 to 2013.
It didn’t come cheaply. According to a 2011 report from the Missouri auditor’s office, the initial cost was $30,000 per animal when you figure in expenses ranging from trapping, relocating and testing the animals to habitat improvements and road maintenance in the elk restoration zone.
“But fast forward to today, the elk are doing their thing,” Zarlenga said. “They’re doing pretty much what we expected.
“We did have some mortalities in 2012 when we had a really strong drought and some of the newcomers did stress out a little bit, and we lost a few there. But, in general, the population is doing pretty well as far as how we expected them to do in reproducing and settling into the area. We’re probably at — I don’t know the exact number — but somewhere in the ballpark of 150 animals right now.”
For the past few years, reports have occasionally surfaced that said hunting the animals may be in the near future. But that probably won’t happen until the herd hits at least the 200 mark, Zarlenga said.
“As far as when that will be, I couldn’t even give you a year if I wanted to,” Zarlenga said. “It’s just going to be a matter of monitoring the herd and seeing how they progress. It could be five years from now, it could be 10 years from now, it could be two years from now. So that’s sort of a wait-and-see type thing on the hunting aspect.”
But that doesn’t mean you have to wait to see these striking, majestic creatures up close and personal. Both the 24,000-acre Peck Ranch Conservation Area and 29,000-acre Current River Conservation Area offer self-guided elk-driving tours. Peck Ranch is near Winona in Shannon County. The tour begins at the office and is available daily except during calving season (April 1 to July 1) and seasonal deer hunting (check https://nature.mdc.mo.gov/discover-nature/activities/driving-tours/elk-driving-tours for details). The Current River tour is available year-round, weather permitting.
A couple of final tips: Your best chance to see elk is right after sunrise or right before sunset. And you’ll almost certainly want to come during the fall rutting season when the animals are “bugling.”
“It starts off low and peaks out with a real high-pitched squeal,” Gray said in describing the eerie sound. “It’s the bull’s way of keeping his harem together and letting the other bulls know he’s around.”
You can find many recorded examples on YouTube.
What record (that you certainly don’t want to break) did Paul Geidel set on May 7, 1980?
Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: When Chet Atkins — “Mr. Guitar” — was just 5 years old, his oldest brother, Jimmy, left home. Having always idolized Jimmy for his guitar playing, little Chet started to play the ukelele. And how did Chet fix the occasional broken string on his instrument? “Those stories about pulling wire out of the screen door to replace broken strings on the uke are true,” he wrote in “Chet Atkins: Me and My Guitars.” “I’d have a picture of it for this book but it met its end before any pictures were taken. I was fooling with it one day when my mother told me to go to the spring for a bucket of water. When I didn’t hop right to it, she pulled it out of my hands and broke it over my head! It didn’t hurt me, but it was all over for the uke.”