46 elk captured, health protocols in progress

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PINEVILLE, KY – Forty-six animals that will form the nucleus of Missouri’s restored elk herd are in a holding pen in Bell County, Kentucky, undergoing veterinary testing and treatment. By the end of the week, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) will start the clock on a 90-day quarantine period designed to ensure they are healthy and ready for a new life in the Ozarks.

Crews made up of personnel from MDC and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources finished trapping operations Jan. 22, using two corral-type traps in separate locations. They baited the traps with alfalfa hay, corn and sweet feed. The traps were equipped with remotely controlled gates, allowing workers to watch the traps from a distance and close them when elk were inside.

MDC hoped to capture 50 elk this year. That challenge was complicated by the need to trap only cow elk, their calves and 1.5-year-old bulls, known as “spikes” because of their unbranched antlers. Spike bulls will be 2.5 years old next fall, when cow elk in Missouri are ready to breed.

“Mature wild bull elk are too strong to work with safely in captivity without sedation,” said MDC Elk Project Manager Ron Dent. “Sedation carries more risk for the animals, and without sedation big bulls pose a danger to workers and other elk in a confined space.”

Trapping crews had to experiment with techniques to exclude mature bulls from the traps. They also had to work through technical hitches with the automatic gates.

This year’s catch includes seven spike bulls, 21 adult cows, 10 yearling bulls, four yearling cows and four female calves. Nearly all the mature cows are expected to be pregnant.

State and federal officials conducted the first round of veterinary testing Tuesday. Elk were guided through a “squeeze chute” like those used for working domestic livestock. Once confined in the chute, each elk received an injection to kill internal and external parasites. Workers then shaved a small patch of skin on the animals’ necks for a tuberculosis skin test and to draw blood for other disease testing. Veterinary health protocols approved by the Missouri State Veterinarian are more stringent than any that apply to livestock brought into Missouri.

After veterinary health work-ups, the elk were fitted with ear tags and with passive integrated transponder (PIT) identification tags.

MDC workers will check the tuberculosis skin tests Friday. Then MDC can start the clock on a 90-day quarantine period. The holding pen is surrounded by a perimeter fence that prevents contact with free-ranging elk or deer.

A three-month quarantine leaves time for MDC to bring the elk to a holding pen at Peck Ranch CA in Carter County and let them acclimate to their new surroundings before being released to the wild. The acclimation period will allow biologists the opportunity to observe elk and fit them with them with GPS collars.

The elk are being protected from poaching or disturbance by curiosity seekers. This protection will continue at the holding site at Peck Ranch. Dent said this is critical to the success of the elk-restoration effort.

“These are wild animals,” he said. “They are highly susceptible to human disturbance. We stay away from the holding pen as much as possible, because the elk can become very nervous if they hear, see or smell humans nearby. They can injure themselves if they bunch up or try to jump the fence. That is why we do not allow news media or other visitors at the trapping site. The same will be true when we bring the elk to the holding pen at Peck Ranch.”