Nature Lab

By Bonnie Chasteen | September 1, 2020
From Missouri Conservationist: September 2020

Each month, we highlight research MDC uses to improve fish, forest, and wildlife management.

Wildlife Management

Elk Ecology Study

How are Missouri’s elk faring almost 10 years since restoration efforts began? MDC, the University of Missouri, and the University of Montana started work to answer this question in 2016.

Conducted within Carter, Shannon, and Reynolds counties, the study estimated the herd’s survival rates and site fidelity. “High site fidelity is a good indicator of available habitat quality,” said MDC Cervid Biologist Aaron Hildreth.

“The elk herd has stayed within the area near the release sites,” Hildreth added. He credited the many governmental and nongovernmental partners, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Pioneer Forest, and a dedicated group of private landowners who helped create quality habitat.

Researchers used radio collars to track the elk and collect data. The collars helped them determine habitat use, movements, and survival and reproductive rates, which they used to model the population and help determine harvest quotas. “We learned that elk cow and calf survival rates have increased through time, which is great news as the population settles into the landscape,” Hildreth said. “We have seen bull survival rates drop,” he added. “This can be explained in part by some older bulls dying and a few younger bulls succumbing to parasites.”

The study’s results helped MDC determine when to offer Missouri’s first regulated elk-hunting season. “In 2013, we set biological sideboards of 200 elk, 10 percent or greater annual population growth, and a ratio of at least 25 bulls per 100 cows before we would propose a hunting season,” Hildreth said.

By June of this year, Missouri’s elk herd had grown to an estimated population of 207, not including calves born this summer. “Given these numbers, we determined that we could sustain a very limited hunt this fall,” Hildreth said.

Elk Study at a Glance

  • Radio collaring
  • Data modeling
  • Aerial survey
  • Pregnancy checking of yearling and adult cows
Current Population Statistics
  • Herd size: 207
  • Annual growth rate of 16%
  • Bull:cow ratio of 39:100
Information Gained

“This study is a key piece that helps inform our model to track population changes through time.” —MDC Cervid Biologist Aaron Hildreth 

This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld

Associate Editor - Larry Archer

Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek

Art Director - Cliff White

Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Designer - Marci Porter

Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner

Circulation - Laura Scheuler