In 2011, the Department of Conservation started reintroducing elk into the state of Missouri. The elk were brought in from Kentucky and released onto land designated as the Elk Relocation Zone. Part of this “zone” is conservation land in the Missouri Ozarks called Peck Ranch.
Right now, there’s a herd of more than a hundred elk roaming around in the Missouri Ozarks. But, you might not know it just by looking around. You see, they’re actually kind of hard to find in the woods.
That’s where Barbara Keller, the elk relocation project’s main scientist, comes in. She tracks the position of each animal every day using special collars they have around their necks. She holds a silver metal antenna over her head and listens carefully. "And you so you’ll see, we’ll go out here and monitor their signals, they emit a radio signal and we can hear that on our receiver," she said.
Keller finds other clues around the ranch. She spots a tree with the bark completely stripped off, a sure sign of an elk. "Deer will do these kinds of rubs as well, but it being that high, the area where the bark is stripped off is so large that it has to be an elk," she said.
Part of Keller’s job with the Missouri Department of Conservation is to track the survival and reproduction rates of the elk. They keep records of everything from how many are being born to what they’re eating to how they die.
One of the reasons the department tracks the elk so closely is so they’ll know when the herd is strong enough to allow hunting. Dave Hasenbeck heads up the program. He said hunting was one of the main motivations to bring elk into the state. "I guess you could say that was partially why we did this or what we’re getting out of it because again, we’ve got a lot of sportsmen and ecological types that would like to see that native species back in Missouri," he said.
But, only a select few people will be able to hunt them at first. Hasenbeck said hunting tags will be given out in a lottery system. "If there’s only 200 elk we couldn’t just let every Missourian buy an elk tag and come down and have 15,000 hunters pursuing 200 elk," he said."
But not everyone is excited to see the large mammals brought into the state. Much of the agricultural community including the Missouri Farm Bureau is very unhappy with the program. Darrell Skiles is a cattle farmer in Salem, about 70 miles from the Elk Relocation Zone. He’s a hunter, but he’s not happy to see elk so close to home. "I love to deer hunt, turkey hunt, I have deer and turkey on the farm here, rabbit hunt, squirrel hunt, whatever, I’ve never hunted elk, I’d like to sometime. I’d like to hunt elk out where I think elk ought to be, out in the Rocky Mountains," he said.
Skiles is also the presiding commissioner for Dent County and has spoken out against the elk program since before the elk were even brought into the state. He said he’s worried about the potential threat to agriculture. His main concerns are disease and property damage. "Elk aren’t like deer. They go over fences, bull elk, they’ll destroy a fence. I talked to landowners who had cattle they were out on the road on a piece of ground where they had just built new fence, and they found where the fence had been torn up," he said.
Elk hunting will likely be allowed once the herd grows to more than 200 animals. The Department of Conservation doesn’t yet know how long that will take.