from the neck to the chest.
Along with deer, they were an abundant source of food and clothing for settlers flooding the region from the east, and they paid the price for the bounties they afforded.
“When settlers started entering the state, these people were just trying to make a living on the landscape,” Hansen said. “Elk and deer were preferred targets for providing food and clothing. A lot of killing of elk and deer went to provide skin and meat for the eastern market. As a result, they were very rapidly extirpated.”
Missouri’s deer population once teetered on the brink of oblivion as well. By 1925, fewer than 400 deer remained in the entire state. It took a concerted commitment to wildlife protection and a national renaissance in conservation practices to bring the population back. But it was too late for the elk. The influx of settlers across the Midwest left little in the way of untouched habitat. “The last elk was reported in the Bootheel in the mid-1860s,” Hansen said. “The only reason they persisted was because the Bootheel was a pretty rough place for people to live.”
Successful programs have intentionally kept numbers low because the elk’s coexistence with people and the maintenance required for healthy habitat demand it. Once upon a time, healthy grasslands and forests didn’t require any help at all.
“It’s amazing what was here pre-settlement times,” Hansen said. “It was very different than what it is now.”
Missouri’s mix of wooded terrain and grasslands make an ideal habitat for elk, as they are both grazers and browsers. Like white-tailed deer, they enjoy shrubs, leaves and plants with woody stems, but unlike deer they mostly stick to grasses. Missouri’s abundance of both made the region hospitable.
Of course much has changed since the days when elk roamed the state in large numbers, and careful management and containment is an important part of any successful reintroduction.
In Arkansas, efforts have included the clearing of pastures for grazing, the planting of winter wheat, clover and orchard grasses, and controlled burns to keep the timber stands healthy.
Missouri’s restoration calls for similar measures. Periodic tree thinning and controlled burns will help maintain open tree canopies and open up bountiful stretches of grassland.
The plan also proposes cost-share incentives for landowners who wish to establish grasses and legumes such as Timothy, orchard grass and clover.