Elk restoration effort moves forward in Missouri

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HAZARD, Ky.–Missouri’s elk-restoration effort took a significant step forward Jan. 7 with the delivery of its first elk.

Workers with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFW) captured a juvenile bull. Of the bulls captured as part of trapping efforts, only calves and spike bulls will be used for Missouri’s restoration program, because mature bull elk with branched antlers are more difficult to handle and more likely to injure themselves or other captured elk.

Before elk trapping could begin, a construction crew made up of workers from KDFW and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) had to build a corral capable of holding 50 elk in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. The pen was built using funds from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Despite challenges posed by single-digit temperatures, repeated heavy snowfall and freezing rain, they put finishing touches on the holding pen just days before the first elk’s arrival.

Kentucky’s deer and elk herd coordinator, Tina Brunjes, said the operation has shifted from construction to trapping.

“The holding facility is complete, we have the pens to hold the elk, and we have the handling facility where we can do all the disease testing,” Brunjes said. “It’s all ready to go.”

The first MDC trapping team arrived in Kentucky last week. MDC Wildlife Management Biologist Travis Mills is supervising the four-person team. Mills has a special interest in the project, since he is the wildlife management biologist for Shannon, Carter, Ripley and Oregon counties, which encompass much of Missouri’s elk-restoration zone.

Mills said the assistance from the KDFW is vital to the success of his team.

“We couldn’t do this project successfully without help from the Kentucky team,” Mills said. “They’ve been through their own elk reintroduction in Kentucky and they’re putting their expertise to work helping us to take every precaution to ensure we bring in a healthy elk herd to Missouri.”

The trapping process, according to Brunjes, starts with laying out bait where the elk regularly travel, then letting that bait lead the elk into the trap through a series of fencing.

“We’ve got bait out in areas where we’re trying to get a significant group of elk to start coming and feeding so we can trap them in the corral,” Brunjes said. By Jan. 10, two elk herds, totaling around 60 animals, were using the bait, setting the stage for trap deployment.

The trapping process is simple, according to Brunjes. She said the team found an area where they have seen elk and knew they are traveling through that area. After placing bait to lead the animals into the corral trap, it is just a matter of waiting.

Once elk are in the trap and the corral gate is closed, the trapping team will transfer them to the holding pen as quick as possible to minimize stress on the animals. Health testing will begin when 50 elk have been captured. Veterinarians from several agencies will cooperate on the health assessment and sampling process according to Brunjes.

If all goes well, MDC hopes to have 50 elk in holding pens by the end of January. When trapping ends and the initial health testing is completed, the clock will start running on a three-month quarantine period in Kentucky.

After arriving in Missouri, the elk will undergo another quarantine period in holding pens at Peck Ranch Conservation Area. These measures are intended to protect the health of Missouri’s domestic livestock and wildlife. The holding period also will allow imported elk to acclimate to the area, reducing the likelihood of their wandering far.

Mills said being part of the elk trapping and restoration team is an exciting assignment.

“To me, this is a career highlight,” Mills said. “I’ve spent over 20 years professionally in conservation and I’m excited to play such an integral part in this chapter of history where we’re restoring an important species to Missouri.”

The Missouri Conservation Commission decided to restore elk in a 346-square-mile area covering parts of Carter, Reynolds and Shannon counties for several reasons. These included citizen requests, ecological benefits from restoring a native species and economic benefits to Missouri through tourism and hunting. Before making the decision, the commission gathered citizen comments at public forums and by e-mail, mail and telephone. More than 70 percent of the 2,953 comments received expressed support for elk restoration.

The limited elk-restoration zone was chosen because it has extensive public lands, minimal agricultural activity, low road density and public support.

All elk brought to Peck Ranch CA will be fitted with microchips and radio collars. This will permit tracking their movements after they leave the holding pen as part of a cooperative research project with the University of Missouri.

The elk-restoration plan includes provisions for protecting Missouri wildlife and livestock and dealing with elk that wander onto private land where they are not welcome. The Conservation Department will use hunting to maintain the elk herd at a manageable size.

-Candice Davis-

For related photos, visit our online newsroom, http://mdc.mo.gov/newsroom.