By Jim Low, MDC
|Courtesy Missouri Department of Conservation|
“It’s an amazing day for the state of Missouri and conservation,” said MDC Director Bob Ziehmer, who was on hand to witness the arrival of Missouri’s second batch of elk. “We’re here today because of decades of conservation work by citizens and diverse partners across the state, and the world class staff of MDC.”
Ziehmer said the elk program is exciting. “With continued citizen support, we’re going to continue this success for generations to come.”
The elk will remain in holding pens for approximately one month to allow them to acclimate to their new home. MDC Resource Scientist Lonnie Hansen said cows will begin dropping calves while still in holding pens. Those that have not calved before being released will seek out secluded spots to do so. Most calves should be born by late June.
The 12,000-acre central refuge area of Peck Ranch CA is closed to the public to minimize disturbance of cow-calf pairs as they settle into their new surroundings. MDC will announce the reopening of the refuge, probably in July.
Cows will come together in social groups during the summer. Hansen is unsure how much the new arrivals will mix with social groups already formed by last year’s elk. In September, mature bulls will begin gathering harems of cows, including cows brought in this year.
“It will be interesting to see how the two groups of elk relate to each other,” said Hansen.
The new arrivals join 36 elk from last year’s restoration effort. The established elk include 13 adult cows, five two-year-old cows, five adult bulls, eight two-year-old bulls and five one year olds.
Tests conducted earlier this month revealed that 19 of the newly arrived adult cows were pregnant. Hansen said he expects that most of the mature cows already roaming Missouri’s 221,000-acre elk-restoration zone will produce calves this year. Some of the two-year-old cows are likely to produce calves, though most elk cows have their first calves at three years of age.
“We have no way of determining how many of last year’s cows are pregnant,” said Hansen. “We just have to wait and see. I would be thrilled if we got 20 calves recruited into the population between the established cows and those that came in this year.”
“We hope that better weather conditions this year will translate into more successful calving and growth of our herd,” Hansen said. “As our bulls mature, we will see more progress toward our initial goal of 150 elk as a founding herd.”
He added that MDC will use carefully regulated hunting to maintain the elk herd at a manageable size and that hunting could begin within four to five years. That decision will be based on information about reproduction and natural mortality, ensuring a sustainable annual harvest.
MDC is radio fitting all elk brought to Missouri with GPS collars so their movements can be tracked.
Experience gained during last year’s elk-trapping effort allowed MDC and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife to capture enough elk to share with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Virginia helped with last year’s trapping operations and received its first allocation of 15 elk this year.
“This partnership has enabled us to do something that none of the participants could do alone,” said Hansen. “We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the State of Kentucky, not only for sharing their elk with us, but also for the benefits we received from their knowledge and experience with elk. Virginia has also been an active partner from the start. The work we have done together is likely to benefit other states that are planning elk-restoration efforts of their own.”
Missouri’s elk partnership has relied heavily on contributions from other government agencies and citizen conservation groups. It could not have been done without the help of the Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and United States departments of agriculture, which oversaw veterinary-health protocols. The University of Missouri and the University of Kentucky have provided research support for the project and Missouri’s State Veterinarian provided invaluable service in this restoration effort.
Major funding came from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), and volunteers from Missouri RMEF chapters provided substantial assistance with labor needed to build holding pens at Peck Ranch CA. RMEF Habitat Council Member Ed Carmack was present for the elk arrival.
“I’ve been involved from the beginning of the elk project and it’s great to see this elk restoration come to fruition after working so hard to see it come together,” Carmack said.
MDC workshops gave landowners around the restoration zone a first-hand look at management practices that benefit elk, as well as other wildlife that thrive on the patchwork of open woodlands and forest that existed in the Ozarks when elk still roamed the region 200 years ago.
Habitat work on public and private land will continue to be a priority for MDC as elk restoration progresses. Elk Restoration Program Coordinator Ron Dent said this ongoing work helps ensure that elk remain in and around the restoration zone.