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First Prairie Chickens, Now Elk: A Look at the Dept. of Conservation's Latest Project

Elk-4.jpg
courtesy the Missouri Department of Conservation
The majestic elk...sort of like the ones that will be arriving in MIssouri next week.
​Elk have not lived in Missouri since Abraham Lincoln was president. (Since 1865, for those of you keeping score at home.)

For mere humans, that's a really, really long time. For a forest, like the one that covers much of the Peck Ranch Conservation Area in southeast Missouri, about three hours from St. Louis, it's not much -- maybe a life cycle or two.

Which is why the Missouri Department of Conservation feels confident that its spanking-new herd of 34 elk, expected to arrive via semi truck from Kentucky next Saturday, April 30, will settle right in, graze happily and be fruitful and multiply. If all goes well, there will be enough elk to hunt in just five years.

And if that sounds a little counterproductive to a city slicker, consider this: Conservationists consider hunting a form of population control.

Anyway, elk have way more benefits than possibly, someday, becoming good eating. The department was so eager to prove them, in fact, that it invited Daily RFT down to Peck Ranch yesterday to check out its spanking-new elk habitat.

peck-ranch-aerial.JPG
Aimee Levitt
Peck Ranch, as viewed from the top of Mt. Stegall, its highest point.
​In 1990, the Department of Conservation started a century-long project to figure out how different forms of land management affect all aspects of the forest ecosystem of the Missouri Ozarks. They've experimented with harvesting trees, setting controlled fires to clear the land and with reintroducing formerly extinct species into the woods (most notably wild turkeys and collared lizards), but they don't expect to see the full effects of their work until 2090. Already one conservation employee, Ryan Hout, a wildlife biologist who manages Peck Ranch, is the second generation of his family to work on the project.

But why bring back the elk after nearly 150 years?

"Natural conservation manager is like a puzzle," Hout explains. "When you tinker with the environment, you want to keep all the pieces." At this point, he says, after 30 years of tinkering, Peck Ranch is finally back to where it was when elk last lived in Missouri, before timber companies swept through the Ozarks and left behind fields of tree stumps.

Plus, elk are what are known in the conservation biz as "charismatic megafauna," the sort of big, adorable animals that draw large crowds of tourists. Reynolds, Shannon and Carter counties, site of the elk restoration zone, are among the poorest in the state.

But what about mountain lions and black bears? They may not be as lovable as elk -- but weren't they once part of the environmental puzzle, too?

"There's a fine line between not encouraging and not discouraging a species," department spokesman Jim Low says carefully. "Bears and mountain lions have been coming in on their own. It wouldn't be prudent to restore them. The presence of humans is too great."

(Obviously he couldn't say, "Well, can you imagine the shitstorm if we used public funds to bring back dangerous wild animals?")

collared-lizard.JPG
Aimee Levitt
The collared lizard, a species previously reintroduced to Missouri. Not megafauna, but charismatic nonetheless.
​This is not the first time Missouri has tried to reintroduce elk. An earlier attempt ten years ago was foiled by an outbreak of chronic wasting disease, a neurological ailment that was then impossible to diagnose in a living animal. (In an exciting new advance in veterinary medicine, it's now possible to test for it by taking a sample from an animal's rectum.) Since then, the Missouri conservationists claim, they've learned from their peers in Kentucky and Arkansas, who have had successful elk reintroduction programs, and are ready to give it another go.

There is one technical problem: the new elk are Rocky Mountain elk. The elk that lived here 150 years ago were eastern elk.

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