Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Elk return to Missouri after 150-year absence

The hills around Peck Ranch Conservation Area once again
will echo with the bugles of bull elk

Sometimes words simply fail. Missouri Conservation Commission
Chairman Becky Plattner was struck speechless this morning as she
stood in the blue dawn light atop a remote ridge in Carter County.
She was listening to sharp snorts and muted barks coming from a
stock trailer holding 34 elk. Overwhelmed by emotion after opening
the trailer door, she turned to Conservation Commissioner Chip
McGeehan and placed her hand over her heart in a gesture of
awe.

McGeehan joined Conservation Department biologists wielding
plywood shields as they herded the elk from the trailer and through
a series of gates to sort them into holding pens. When he glanced
up at Plattner, she teased “Why are your eyes so big, Chip?”

“We’re making history,” he replied.

McGeehan was referring to the return of wild elk to Missouri
after an absence of 150 years. The elk began their odyssey in
January, when they were captured by MDC staff in cooperation with
biologists from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife
Resources. Three months later, with the requirements of stringent
veterinary-health protocols met, the elk made a 12-hour trip by
semi-trailer, arriving at Peck Ranch Conservation Area shortly
after 6:30 a.m. The timing was critical to keep the animals cool
and minimize stress.

Plattner and McGeehan joined officials of the Rocky Mountain Elk
Foundation and MDC staff directly involved in the elk-restoration
effort for the elk’s arrival. They watched as MDC staff guided six
bull elk and 28 cows and calves into separate holding pens.

“Who would have thought 30 years ago that we would be standing
here this morning watching elk return to Missouri?” MDC Director
Bob Ziehmer mused. “This amazing event is a continuation of the
Conservation legacy that Missouri Citizens created and continue to
support today”

Ziehmer said the return of elk to Missouri marks a new era in
the Show-Me State’s conservation history. The fact that Missouri
now has appropriate habitat for elk is tangible proof that
long-term, landscape-scale habitat conservation and restoration
efforts are coming to fruition.

“When I saw those animals come off the trailer it made the hair
on the back of my neck stand up,” said RMEF Missouri State Chairman
Dave Pace. “Seeing these animals come back, so generations and
generations of Missourians will get to see them, is a very
momentous occasion. This is a great day for wildlife, it’s a great
day for conservation and it’s a great day for the Rocky Mountain
Elk Foundation and all our volunteers. This is what we work
for.”

Twenty-three-thousand-acre Peck Ranch CA is at the heart of a
346-square-mile elk restoration zone that encompasses parts of
Carter, Shannon and Reynolds counties. After an acclimation period
the elk will be released into Peck Ranch’s rugged hills and
valleys, where MDC has been working for 30 years to recreate the
landscape-scale type of habitat that sustains multiple species of
wildlife.

The RMEF is a major supporter of Missouri’s elk-restoration
program.

“There is no higher calling in conservation than restoring a
native game species to sustainable, huntable, balanced
populations,” said RMEF President David Allen in a prepared
statement. “We are proud to partner in that kind of effort in
Missouri, just as we have been in Kentucky, Tennessee, Wisconsin
and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. As in
those places, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is in this for the
long haul in Missouri, too. We will remain by your side to ensure
these elk not only arrive, but thrive. And we’ll be here to help
you show conservationists around the world what is possible when
you dream big and never give up.”

Missouri’s elk will remain in the holding pens at Peck Ranch for
up to two weeks to allow them to acclimate to their new home. When
the time comes to release the elk from the pens, workers will
quietly open gates at night, so the animals can leave on their own
when they discover they no longer are confined.

“It’s called a ‘soft release,'” said Resource Scientist Lonnie
Hansen. “This is a technique recommended by our partners in
Kentucky, based on their experience. They found that if they
brought elk in and released them directly from trailers, the
animals bolted from the area. That increased the risk of injury to
the elk, and it didn’t encourage them to stay near the release
site.”

For the same reason, said Hansen, MDC had a low-key arrival
event at the holding facility when the elk arrived.

Peck Ranch’s refuge area will remain closed to the public
through July. By then, all the calves will have been born and
adjusted to their surroundings.

Hansen said MDC is counting on habitat restoration that has been
underway at Peck Ranch for more than 30 years to encourage the elk
to stay within the 346-square-mile elk restoration zone. He said
MDC’s elk-restoration plan includes provisions to deal with elk
that find their way onto land where they are not welcome. Long-term
plans call for hunting as a tool to manage the size of the elk
herd. When hunting commences will depend on how quickly the herd
grows, but Hansen said it could begin as soon as 2015.

So see photos and video of the elk’s arrival, click here.

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