Chronic Wasting Disease, a neurological disorder that officials worried could spread to deer. After 10 years of study and lessons learned from other successful programs, conservation officials say they’re ready. The Department’s plan cites stronger protocols for disease testing and no known cases of reintroduced elk spreading disease to deer or livestock.
Conservation Department Director Robert Ziehmer said the Department has actively engaged citizens and organizations to gather input on elk restoration. “A key component of Missouri’s plan is the defined restoration zone. Given habitat within this zone, the limited number of elk to be released, established health protocols, monitoring commitment and solid citizen/landowner support, implementation will provide natural resource and recreational benefits,” said Ziehmer.
It’s been a long time, but Missouri is ready for the elk to return.
A Native Species
Elk were once abundant in Missouri, but their numbers fell as more and more settlers flooded America’s untamed west. By most accounts, they were completely eliminated from the state by 1865. They were hunted for their meat, hides and antlers, but that wasn’t all that was working against them. Settlement altered their habitat as open grazing spaces and forests were turned into agricultural land, homesteads and cities.
Lonnie Hansen is a resource scientist and deer specialist with the Missouri Department of Conservation and has played a role in the reintroduction study. Hansen says elk were once a prominent part of the state’s ecology and would likely still be here had they not been exploited out of existence.
“Elk were pretty well found throughout the state prior to the arrival of European settlers,” Hansen said. “They’re a native species and certainly that’s a charge of the Department—to restore native species.”
The North American elk is a striking and majestic creature. Mature males, called bulls, generally weigh 600 to 800 pounds and wear an impressive display of antlers that can weigh up to 40 pounds on their own. Adult females, called cows, weigh 400 to 600 pounds and move in harems. Cows rarely live longer than 10 years and bulls typically live less than 6.
They wear distinctively different coats in summer and winter. In the warmer months, their coat is smooth and reddish brown; during the winter, a lighter brown with much darker hair on the head, neck and legs. Both sexes sport a distinct patch of yellow hair on the rump, and a dark mane of longer hair