Wild Elk Make Comeback in Missouri
Thanks To A Wildlife Restoration Project Supported by Service Funding
By Joanna Gilkeson
The state of Missouri is actively working on restoring its wild elk population. This year alone, the Missouri Department of Conservation added 40 elk to their newly established herd, including one newborn male calf. A research and management plan for elk is headed up by the Department and University of Missouri to improve reintroduction processes and insure successful elk population management.
So why is Missouri restoring elk to the state? Prior to European settlement, native elk were abundant in Missouri, but by 1865 it was determined that the population was extinct. Restoring and managing for native species is one of the Department’s major responsibilities. In addition, citizens and local conservation groups in Missouri had also been requesting that the state work to restore the wild elk. Not only does the restoration have biological benefits, but this resurgence in interest was also because states, including Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas, have seen their reintroduced elk populations serve as a tourist attraction for hunters and wildlife enthusiasts. The benefits of restoration can work to the state’s advantage as surges of tourism generate increased revenue for local communities.
In response to the public interest for elk restoration, the Department conducted an elk reintroduction feasibility study in 2000. The Department determined that elk restoration was feasible in an area around the Peck Ranch Conservation Area, which is made up of three southeast Missouri counties and about 350 square miles of land. Despite interest to restore elk, the project was put on hold due to concerns about lack of suitable habitat and that elk could carry chronic wasting disease which could be passed on to livestock or wildlife.
The desire for elk restoration in Missouri was reignited by interest from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, citizens, and Conservation Commissioners. Given the successful examples of elk restorations in other states and a better understanding of chronic wasting disease, Missouri began reconsidering the effort to restore wild elk.
A collared elk at Peck Ranch Conservation Area. (Photo courtesy of the Missouri Department of Conservation)
On Oct. 15, 2010, the Commission approved a plan to bring 150 elk into Missouri within a year's time. The plan directed the Department to restore elk in an originally designated elk restoration zone in southeast Missouri. The effort began by capturing wild elk from states with established populations and bringing them into the restoration zone, specifically from Kentucky’s wild elk population. Also, Kentucky has no reported cases of chronic wasting disease. In 2011, Missouri captured and released 39 elk, and in 2012, an additional 35 elk were captured and released.
This year, Missouri brought 39 elk from Kentucky. By the time they reached Missouri, the Department had 40 elk. One of the pregnant cows gave birth on the road to Missouri. He was nicknamed "Plus-1".
The Department is learning about the trials and tribulations of elk reintroduction. From the 2011 trapping season to 2012, the Department changed trapping practices like enlarging holding pens and extending the pens into brushier areas to provide more realistic habitat conditions for the elk. The Department believes that, as they learn more about elk reintroduction through experience, the changes to the process will bring about positive responses from the elk and reduce the stress they may experience while being transferred from Kentucky to Missouri.
The Department and the University have developed a research and management plan for the reintroduced elk. The results of this research will be critical in guiding successful management of the population in the future. Each elk that has been released has been fitted with a Global Positioning System-Platform Transmitter Terminal (GPS-PTT) tag attached to it. These tags are programmed to collect elk locations at 5-hour intervals, year round. The GPS-PTT tags will monitor elk movements and these locations will be transmitted from satellite receivers to a website, where it is then downloaded.
The data will result in better informed management decisions for wild elk in Missouri. The data will evaluate elk movement patterns, habitat use, and food habitats, as well as the diet quality of the elk. In addition, the survival and reproductive rates will be tracked in order to follow population demographics of the elk over time. This information will be critical in developing sustainable management techniques and an appropriate elk harvest model. Finally, hormones will be taken from fecal samples to evaluate stress after release and how human disturbances effect the elk.
So far, the collar data have provided some insight into elk behavior in Missouri. The elk are exploring their new home, but stay in close proximity to green browse fields and open woodland habitat. Deer hunters in the area were also asked to carry GPS units in order for researchers to evaluate how elk reacted to human disturbance. They found that most elk movements were short term and that the elk returned to their original locations upon hunters exiting the area. The research has provided some much needed answers, but grant funding for the project will remain intact until June of 2015. This will allow the Department and University to continue collecting elk population information and to develop effective management strategies for the new herd.
The overall goal of this research is to develop effective management strategies for the reintroduced wild elk population in Missouri, and also provide information for other reintroduction efforts, including best practices for elk restoration. This research project was, in part, made possible by a Service Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program grant. The Service's Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program efficiently and effectively administers grant programs and works with fish and wildlife agencies in a mutually responsible, cooperative and creative grant partnership to protect and enhance fish, wildlife, and habitat resources for present and future public benefit.