Elk restoration enters second year

News from the region
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JEFFERSON CITY – Missouri’s elk herd is growing on two fronts, and conservation officials express optimism that the second year of restoration work will benefit from experience gained in 2011.

Efforts to bring elk back to Missouri after a 150-year absence began in October 2010, when the Missouri Conservation Commission approved a restoration plan. The plan called for obtaining up to 150 wild elk from other states with established wild populations.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) quickly got the go-ahead from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources to trap elk from its herd of more than 10,000. The Bluegrass State restored its elk herd between 1997 and 2002, bringing elk from Utah and other western states to populate a 16-county restoration zone.

MDC construction crews began building traps and holding pens in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky in December 2010. Although hampered by heavy snowfall, they completed their work in time to start trapping elk in January 2011.

This year, warm weather with little snow helped MDC make extensive modifications to holding pens. However, those same conditions hampered actual trapping, since elk had easier access to natural food and were less inclined to visit baited trap sites. In spite of this, 54 elk were captured through a combination of baited pen traps and sedative darting.

“We learned a lot the first year,” said MDC Elk Project Manager Ron Dent. “That enabled us to make better use of the opportunities we had to catch elk, and we have significantly improved handling procedures and veterinary care to keep the animals we captured healthy.”

Changes to this year’s elk-restoration work in Kentucky included enlarging the holding pens and extending them into brushy areas to provide better shelter from the elements. Other changes have substantially reduced disturbance from human activities and provided more natural, hygienic access to food and water. Provisions for moving and handling elk also have been changed to reduce stress and potential for injury.

“The elk are a lot more relaxed and in much better physical condition this year, thanks to all the changes we have made,” said Dent. “In short, we are getting better at this, and that translates into more and healthier elk.”

One particularly valuable innovation this year is the addition of two caretakers to watch over the Kentucky elk. Living in a camper on-site, the two not only guard against human disturbance, they provide early warnings of developing problems.

“One of our caretakers has an agriculture background and is very quick to pick up on it when the elk’s behavior is off,” said Dent. “That has given us the jump on several situations. Without their help, we wouldn’t be where we are today with this year’s work.”

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has shared the cost and staff needs for trapping efforts and plans to begin its own restoration this year. Substantial financial support also came from private conservation groups, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation.

MDC once again is working closely with the Missouri Department of Agriculture and the U.S., Kentucky and Virginia departments of agriculture to ensure the health of all the captured elk.

This year’s catch of 54 elk includes 39 cows and 15 bulls. They will be divided between Missouri and Virginia, with the majority earmarked for Missouri.

Missouri’s share of this year’s captured elk will join the 36 elk already living here. The current elk herd consists of five calves born in Missouri last year and 31 of the 34 elk brought from Kentucky in 2011. Catch a glimpse of elk at Peck Ranch through this You Tube video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=geWE1eYAUuA

One of Missouri’s elk that died last year was a cow that was brought to Kentucky from Utah in 1997, the first year of Kentucky’s elk-restoration program. As the dominant cow, she played a key role in establishing Missouri’s elk herd before succumbing to old age. The other two casualties among last year’s transplants resulted from internal parasites and an accidental fall.

“Naturally, we hate to lose any of these animals,” said Dent. “But losses are inevitable, and we have every reason to believe that such losses will be smaller in the future as we gain experience.”

One of the elk now in holding pens in Kentucky is a cow that also was part of Kentucky’s restoration herd. She came to Kentucky from Utah as a calf in 1999.

Most of the 13 mature cows already in Missouri, along with those that will arrive this spring, are expected to be pregnant and will give birth to calves in early summer. With normal calf survival, Missouri’s resident elk herd could top 70 by the end of the summer.

MDC personnel will attempt to find calves born in Missouri this year and fit them with radio collars.

GPS collars on most of the resident herd enable MDC to track their movements. Dent said they are behaving as expected, exploring their new home but mostly staying in the vicinity of green browse fields and open woodland habitat available within the 346-square-mile elk-restoration zone in Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties.

“They are using the wildlife plots we established along the elk-tour routes,” said Dent. “They also are using open woodlands and forested areas, where they find acorns during the fall.”

Hunters who took part in managed deer hunts at Peck Ranch Conservation Area (CA) in October, November and December were asked to carry GPS units so biologists could observe how elk reacted to human activity.

“Most of the elk movements were short-term, and they returned to the same places after hunters left,” said Dent. “We were surprised to find that they didn’t move much at all. Mainly they just moved and stayed out of sight. We only had a few hunters who saw elk.”

According to Dent, the elk were more dispersed during the summer, as would be expected when cows are rearing their calves. As autumn wore on, they came together in three loosely organized groups. This is consistent with elk mating behavior, in which dominant bulls gather and guard “harems” of cows. These groups have tended to hold together until the present, and likely will break up again as calving season approaches.

To encourage Missouri’s growing elk herd to remain in and around the restoration zone, MDC is working to enlarge and improve existing habitat that meets the grazing animals’ needs. This work includes planting patches of mixed legumes and warm- and cool-season grasses and liming and fertilizing existing green-browse plots.

One large project involves several hundred acres on Current River CA. Some of these areas are old fields that formerly were pasture, hay or cropland but have grown up in brushy vegetation and invasive trees such as locust, cedar and Osage orange. Restoring these areas to a more open condition enhances habitat diversity in a way that benefits a wide range of wildlife, including elk.

Dent said elk have turned into a popular attraction at Peck Ranch CA, with individuals frequenting the established elk driving tour and local businesses making plans to develop elk-viewing opportunities. Dent said hunters at Peck Ranch CA last fall reported that the possibility of seeing elk was one of the area’s primary attractions.

MDC plans to close the refuge area at Peck Ranch CA this spring, as it did last year. Dent said the inconvenience to turkey hunters is considered necessary to avoid disturbance of elk from Kentucky and resident elk that are calving during the spring and early summer. The portion of Peck Ranch CA outside the marked refuge fence remains open to hunting and other activities. Dent said the 12,000-acre refuge area will remain closed until mid-summer. Exact closure and reopening dates will be announced later this year.

He said he expects health tests of elk trapped this year to be complete in May, after which they can be brought to Missouri. They will be released after a short holding period to allow them to acclimate to their new surroundings.

MDC is exploring the possibility of using elk brought from Kentucky this year to establish a second sub-herd on property owned by The Nature Conservancy. Dent said this area is nearer the middle of the elk-restoration zone, and releasing elk there would encourage additional use of suitable habitat the area offers. He said The Nature Conservancy has put significant effort into habitat improvements on its land, making that area even more suitable for elk.

“It also has the advantage of not putting all Missouri’s elk in one basket, so to speak,” said Dent.

-Jim Low-