Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Elk and Opportunity in Carter and Shannon Counties

I am a little late updating the current status of the Peck Ranch restoration effort in Missouri, but I kind of wanted to see how things were settling out with the newest group of elk that had been brought over from Kentucky, and also to see how things shook out after the MDC had to put down one of the elk that had wandered quite a ways out of the elk restoration zone.

First, the good news. Additional elk have been added to the herd at Peck Ranch and are doing quite well. These majestic creatures that once thrived in Missouri, even at times and in certain locales outnumbering bison, are being given another chance.  Of course these are not the descendants of the same elk that graced the land, but it seems right and fitting that they take their place once again where their species once roamed.

There has been a certain reluctance by some who inhabit the region to be accepting of the return of elk to their area.  It is akin to a population that many generations ago drove out another group of people, and though now their consciences convict them that they should make room for those displaced, realize that there may be some cost to obeying their conscience. Similar stories are repeated where bear, wolves, mountain lions, and other native species are re-introduced.

The analogy related above only serves to illustrate this scenario partially.  First, elk are not people.  It could be argued that, since most believe the needs of humanity are elevated above those of the animal world, we have less responsibility to allow them where they may not be welcomed by some.  The other side of the coin is that animals have less capacity to relocate as they have no capacity to modify the environment in which they dwell.  Humans can go anywhere today and exist at some level via technology and human ingenuity. But what is missed by either of these two arguments is the incredible value the re-introduction of these animals brings to the people of the region and to us all.

The folks that live down in the Ozarks have an aversion to government interfering in their lives, or so they say.  It should be noted that a huge percentage of people in the area around Peck Ranch derive their income, either directly or indirectly, from the government they criticize. The per capita expenditure by the federal government alone in Carter County, where most of Peck is located, was in 2004 approximately $7500 per year, totaling nearly $48 million.  In 2005, 20% of the employed population was in fact employed by a government entity.  Given that the average income of employed residents of Carter County was about $32,000, the $7500 per capita expenditure (again, federal government alone), represents a meaningful portion of the cash flow of the county.  In other words, were the area residents to get what they profess to want, they would be plunged into a state of abject poverty.  In fact, as the Missouri Department of Conservation began to explore reintroducing elk to Peck, local residents were immediately involved in the process.  

Public forums were held throughout the counties to be impacted and the concerns of area residents were taken into account.  Landowners were assured that wandering elk would be relocated if they were not desired on their land.  Stipulations were put into place so that if elk wandered from the 220,000 acre restoration zone, the elk would be removed.  Application of this rule, in fact, resulted recently in the unfortunate end of one of the elk originally brought to Peck.

The elk of Peck have occasionally strayed outside their restoration zone briefly.  Last month a resident of Ripley County, south of Carter and Shannon Counties, reported an elk that had wandered almost to the Arkansas border.  The MDC made every effort to tranquilize the animal for transport back to Peck, and when this failed the animal was shot.  Ironically, there was criticism of the MDC's decision to kill this elk in adherence to the plan area residents had insisted upon. The MDC undoubtedly was sensitive to the thought that they must demonstrate to area residents that they would adhere to the plan agreed to when they chose to put this animal down.  

As this example shows, the MDC has and will continue to assure area residents that the elk will not be allowed to spread beyond the restoration zone, or to impact crops in the region.  The MDC did a marvelous job of showing statistical evidence that elk were far less likely to be involved in collisions with traffic than deer - this was another stated concern of area residents. Finally, the MDC has gone way out of its way to address the concerns of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), and continues to monitor for it.  This concern, in fact delayed the elk program for several years.  So, in the mind of this author, the important concerns of the area residents have in fact been adequately addressed.

What seems to be missing from the region in a broad sense, is a strategy for capturing the benefits of the inflow of visitors to the region.  Whether these visitors are Current River, Jacks Fork, or Eleven Point River floaters; whether they are the throngs of hunters that arrive in the Fall; or the many fishermen who utilize the beautiful spring-fed waters of the region, too many dollars are missed out on by the region's inhabitants.  The elk restoration project represents one more jewel to place in the crown of this region.  

For those who have not witnessed the beauty of an elk in the wild or heard its bugle from afar, it is hard to describe the majesty of these creatures.  Area residents, as Peck begins to welcome visitors after the elk have made their transition, should make every effort to make a trek on the nice roads through the fenced portion of the refuge.  The chance for the sighting of one of these beautiful animals, or a resident black bear, or even the many deer that inhabit the area, is well worth the effort of going.  Moreover, instead of resisting the relocation effort, I cannot for the life of me understand why towns like Eminence and Van Buren are not wrestling over the title of "The Elk Capitol of Missouri".  Why were there not signs placed on every highway entering Shannon and Carter Counties with murals depicting the opportunities for fishing, hunting, wildlife viewing and the bear, deer, trout, smallmouth bass, and now elk that, along with the charm of the Ozark hills make this region so nearly perfect?  

Peck Ranch and the Ozarks have represented a meaningful part of the life of the author of this blog and his two sons as they grew from little boys to men.  We treasure memories like hunting and fishing trips, the swimming in Rocky Falls plunge pool, and the awakening to the midnight howls of coyotes as we camped in our one man tents nestled under the mature pine grove of rustic Peck Ranch campground.  It brings me a feeling of contentment to understand that a dad trying to raise his sons or daughters in tune with the outdoors of Missouri, can now add to the symphony of coyotes, the bugle of an elk.