There’s a sound that echoes over the treetops in Arkansas’ Buffalo National River park in early fall. It’s haunting, and it’s ancient, and it went quiet for more than 100 years before returning in the early 1980s—a mere blip in the grand scheme of things. Late September and early October is the rutting season for elk (Cervus elaphus), and their call is frequent, day and night.
“It starts off low and peaks out with a real high-pitched squeal,” said Cory Gray, elk program leader for the state of Arkansas. “It’s the bull’s way of keeping his harem together and letting the other bulls know he’s around.”
Northern Arkansas is home to roughly 400 North American elk, a species once found throughout the Midwest but now primarily in the Rocky Mountains and western states. Arkansas first introduced around 100 elk in the early 1980s and confined the population to the Buffalo National River area. Since then, they’ve kept the head count under 500 through management practices that include issuing a limited number of hunting permits each summer. The elk’s numbers aren’t as many as they once were, but they make their presence known in early fall as males gather their harems and compete for dominance.
“They’ll clash antlers together and start pushing each other back and forth to see who is the strongest,” Gray said. “Bulls will lose a lot of weight this time of year as they try to maintain their harem. It’s very energy consuming.”
The elk attract a lot of visitors in Arkansas, particularly in the summer when hunting tags are sold, and in the fall when the mating pageantry is on display.
“We have people come from all over to see our elk,” Gray said.
Officials in Missouri hope to see similar benefits. On Oct. 15, the Missouri Conservation Commission approved a plan to bring as many as 150 elk to the state within the year. Several other states have had success with similar efforts, and officials here are learning how to manage a successful program. Conservation measures such as bringing back elk pay by both enriching our economy and our quality of life.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has been weighing the possibility since 2000, focusing on roughly 350 square miles of mostly public land in the southeastern part of the state. The original study raised concerns about available habitat and the possibility that elk could carry 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 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.
Missouri’s elk will each be fitted with a radio transmitter to allow officials to monitor their movement and determine how they use the space. This will help officials keep tabs on their numbers and institute appropriate hunting guidelines to ensure the population is compatible with the available habitat and public interest. Furthermore, if elk wander outside the restoration zone and onto private land where they are not wanted, the Department will immediately respond to landowner complaints and work to resolve the issue.
Dave Pace is Missouri’s volunteer state chair for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. The organization has more than 150,000 members nationwide and is committed to maintaining healthy natural habitats for elk and other wildlife. Missouri’s plan calls for the organization to help defray some of the transportation and logistical costs associated with bringing elk to Missouri. Pace applauded the state’s efforts and said habitat improvements made for elk have other benefits.
“A piece of ground conserved for an elk will benefit other wildlife as well,” he said. “I’d like to see us be able to pass this down to future generations.”
Pace lives in Salem, roughly 30 miles from Peck Ranch and says he’s not expecting the animals to ever wander that far.
A Cooperative Effort
The original feasibility study conducted in 2000 identified Peck Ranch Conservation Area in southeast Missouri as an ideal site. The large forested area includes parts of Carter, Shannon and Reynolds counties and is made up of mostly public land. The Department considered the area suitable because of its mixed habitat, low number of roads, and low density of crops and livestock.
“We’re looking at an area of 346 square miles, plus or minus,” Hansen said. With an estimated goal of 300 to 400 elk, that would mean a density of one animal per square mile.”
Nearly half (49 percent) of the elk restoration zone is held in public trust by the Missouri Department of Conservation, the National Park Service or the United States Forest Service. Another 27 percent is private land maintained by the L-A-D Foundation, which works to maintain the property through sustainable forestry and woodland management. Another 3 percent is protected by the Nature Conservancy, which works to protect ecologically important lands. Their combined efforts have significantly improved the region for elk since the early 1990s.
Back in Buffalo River National Park, Gray said the success of Arkansas’ elk program is a result of such cooperation.
“For Arkansas, it was a partnership between the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the residents of Newton County.” Gray said. “Now it’s a partnership between Buffalo River National Park, the Forest Service and several organizations. It’s a wide range of partnerships.”
Much has changed since thousands of elk roamed what is now Missouri, and much has changed since the last native elk was spotted in the state 150 years ago.
“We got away from the attitude that deer were nothing but a piece of meat on the table,” said Hansen. “That old mentality that we can’t possibly kill them all, but we did.”
It was people who exploited the elk until there weren’t any more, and it was people who changed the landscape to the point it was no longer hospitable. But Missourians care about conserving wildlife. With that kind of support, and with a little effort, cooperation and the restorative hand of sound forestry management, elk will once again have a place in Missouri.
- Elk are members of the deer family, which includes white-tailed deer, mule deer, caribou and moose.
- Male elk are called bulls, females are cows, babies are calves, and yearling males are called spikes. While newborns are only about 35 pounds, males weigh 600–800 pounds when mature.
- Only male elk have antlers. A mature bull’s antlers may weigh up to 40 pounds. They grow and shed a new pair every year.
- An elk’s top two canine teeth are called ivories. Scientists believe ivories are remnants of saber-like tusks that ancestral species of elk used in combat.
- Elk eat grasses and forbs most of the year. In winter they may also eat shrubs, tree bark and twigs.
- Cows, calves and yearlings live in loose herds or groups. Bulls live in bachelor groups or alone.
- Elks vocalize in a variety of ways and for different reasons. Bulls may bugle to attract cows or to advertise their dominance to other bulls. They will grunt at cows that stray from their harem. Cows may bark to warn others of danger, mew to keep track of each other and signal their calves by whining softly. Calves in distress will bleat for their mothers.
- Elk breed in the fall. Bulls gather cows and calves into small groups called harems.
- Elk do not have the potential population growth rates of deer. Elk almost always have a single calf each year as opposed to deer, which often have at least two fawns.
- Bulls wallow in mud to coat themselves with “perfume” to attract cows. They also bugle and rub trees, shrubs and the ground with their antlers to attract cows and intimidate other bulls.
- Calves are typically born in late May through early June. They are spotted and scentless and spend their first few weeks hiding motionless while their mothers feed.
- Prior to European settlement, more than 10 million elk roamed nearly all of the United States and parts of Canada.
- Today, about 1 million elk live in the western United States, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, and from Ontario west in Canada.
Courtesy of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s website at www.rmef.org
Key points to remember about elk restoration in Missouri:
- Elk is a native species to Missouri, and restoring native species holds many benefits.
- Elk in eastern states tend to be non-migratory and utilize available habitat,
- Limited number of elk will be released,
- Limited area with quality habitat,
- Elk will be radio collared and closely monitored,
- 79 percent of the elk restoration land is open to public access,
- The Department is committed to addressing elk in unwanted locations outside the restoration zone including harassment techniques, trapping and relocating and/or euthanizing elk, and
- Hunting is proposed to be implemented as soon as possible after the elk become established
- Elk restoration will include health protocols, such as disease testing, to ensure the health of domestic livestock and other wildlife.