By the end of April, a 346-square-mile swath of southeastern Missouri will look like the state last did in the mid-19th century: with 800-pound elk clomping around the woods.
Elk are a native species to the state, but European settlers depended so heavily on them for food and hides, by 1865 they were gone. "For consumptive reasons, they basically killed them all. That's the bottom line," says Missouri Department of Conservation resource scientist Lonnie Hansen. "The reality is, the deer, the elk, the turkey, the large mammals, essentially disappeared because they were shot to oblivion."
Deer and turkey were both restored during the 20th century, and now,
Hansen says, it's the elk's turn. With an assist from the Kentucky
Department of Fish and Wildlife, which restored elk in the state in the
'90s, Missouri's restoration program is on track to build a herd of
400-500 in a restoration zone overlapping Shannon, Reynolds and Carter
counties after a few years.
In January, the KDFW corralled 46
elk in a giant pen in the Appalachian Mountains. The animals are
being quarantined and undergoing a battery of medical tests. Once
they're declared disease-free, the elk will be shipped to the Missouri
"Most people, I think, are pretty excited about
getting elk," Hansen says, and, in fact, the MDC reported that 80
percent of public input on the plan was positive.
everybody is catching elk fever. The Missouri Farm Bureau, a
lobbying group, has voiced spirited opposition to the restoration plan.
Their arguments are that the animals represent a serious threat to
livestock, property owners and drivers.
Leslie Holloway, state and local governmental
affairs director for the Farm Bureau, says chronic wasting disease has
become a problem and poses a threat to animal owners in several states that have restored elk.
so much, the MDC counters. "Chronic wasting disease is specific to whitetail deer and elk, and so livestock won't get it," Hansen says. "The
chronic wasting disease argument is not an argument." Furthermore,
Hansen says, the 90-day quarantine the elk are currently spending in
Kentucky, plus the multiple disease tests they are given, will ensure
that the animals are safe to ship to Missouri. "Other restorations
haven't gone to the lengths we have to ensure that we don't bring those
Department of Transportation supports the elk plan, but echoes this
concern in a comment letter submitted to the MDC.
that fear with a couple of statistics from Arkansas' elk-restoration
area. Yes, elk pose a threat to drivers, he says, but the road density
in Missouri's elk zone is about half of that in Arkansas." In Arkansas,
ever since they've had them in the mid- or late 1980s, they've averaged
one to two elk-vehicle accidents [each year]," he says. "And there is no
known case of a human fatality in any of the states with restorations
as the result of a collision with an elk."
acknowledge that the elk will surely bring one problem: messed-up
private property. "[W]e know in other states elk have destroyed
fences. They don't have any problem going through a barbed wire fence,"
Holloway says. "[I]f there are livestock in an enclosed pasture or
something of that nature take the fence down, you have livestock get
out on the road, and that's a major issue."
Hansen and the
MDC concede that point. "I can guarantee that at some point
down the road, elk will get on private property where they're not
wanted. And we recognize that," he says. "We have developed a strategic
plan to deal with elk that get into places where they're not wanted."
despite the promise of certain problems, Hansen says the MDC has two PR
trump cards to win the public over: hunting and hiking. "We're going to
start hunting them as quickly as we can," he says, noting that a hunt will be the only method the department plans to use to keep the elk
population in the desirable 400-500 range. "There's
a tremendous interest in hunting. The most common question I get asked
is, 'When can we hunt them?'" he says. "We have half a million deer
hunters in the state, and I can just about guarantee you that every one
of them would like to be able to hunt an elk."
And, he notes, part of the Ozark Trail cuts through the restoration zone, which should set up a little tourism outpost. "What we'd like to see is, have a situation where the elk are very visible from a distance, so people can drive up to this lookout point and watch the elk in a field two or three hundred yards away," he says. "It's kind of big business in every state [with restored elk populations]."
video of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife building the pen
that's currently housing the elk bound for Missouri.