Kentucky to provide elk for Missouri restoration program

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HAZARD, Ky. – Elk from Kentucky will begin arriving in the Show-Me State this coming spring, and preparations to trap and transport the animals are proceeding rapidly, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC).

In October, the Conservation Commission directed MDC staff to restore elk to a 346-square-mile area in Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties. The first step in implementing the plan was to find a state willing to share its elk.

“Kentucky has by far the most successful elk restoration program and largest herds in the eastern United States,” said MDC Resource Scientist Lonnie Hansen, “Its herds number around 10,000 across 16 counties. The Commonwealth of Kentucky generously consented to provide elk for our program, so we are preparing to help trap elk in Kentucky and bring them to Peck Ranch Conservation Area in southeast Missouri.”

The area where MDC will trap elk is on the Cumberland Plateau in the Appalachian Mountains of eastern Kentucky. Elk inhabit approximately 6,000 square miles of the mountainous region. Most of Kentucky’s elk are clustered around the eight sites where elk from western states were released during a five-year restoration effort from 1997 to 2002. In all, the commonwealth brought 1,549 elk from western states. The ratio of cows to bulls was three to one. Much of the area inhabited by elk is owned or controlled by timber or mining companies and is managed by the Commonwealth under special agreements.

Construction of a corral-type elk trap, holding pens and other facilities began Dec. 8 in Bell County, Kentucky. Construction Superintendent Richard Grishow, who supervises MDC on-site staff, said the work has progressed very quickly. In spite of single-digit temperatures and a 14-inch snowfall, work was winding down by Dec. 15. On that morning, the crew had to use space heaters to free skid steers from frozen mud before work could begin. Frequent sightings of elk have kept construction crews excited about their work.

Grishow said he expects the trap and holding pen in Kentucky to be completed by Christmas. Soon afterwards, trapping crews will begin baiting the trap with a mixture of corn, oats and molasses. At the same time, MDC construction workers will be busy back at home building a holding pen at Peck Ranch Conservation Area. The elk will arrive in tractor-trailer trucks after a three-month, precautionary quarantine in Kentucky.

The MDC has not selected a site for the holding pen at Peck Ranch. However, it likely will be in a remote spot inside the conservation area’s 11,000-acre central refuge. The Missouri holding pen will consist of a single 12-foot chain-link fence covered with burlap so the elk cannot see out or be disturbed by activities outside the pen. MDC Resource Scientist Ron Dent, who is helping with the restoration program, says the enclosure will minimize the chance of disturbing the elk.

“We will try to minimize human activity around the enclosure,” said Dent. “These are wild animals that are not used to being around people. Activity around the holding pen could cause unnecessary stress to these animals.”

The MDC will provide periodic public updates, including photos and video of the trapping and relocation process.

Elk could be released into the wild at Peck Ranch as soon as late April 2011. The “soft release” will involve opening a gate and letting elk leave on their own. The MDC plans to close the refuge area at Peck Ranch to hunting as long as elk remain in the holding pen. This is likely to affect a small number of turkey hunters who use the area.

The MDC selected the limited restoration zone in this remote part of the Ozarks because it has extensive public lands, suitable habitat, low road density, minimal agricultural activity and landowner support.

MDC personnel have received significant help from the staffs and volunteers from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFW), the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) and the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

The RMEF recently pledged $300,000 for Missouri’s elk-restoration program. The AWF has pledged $50,000. Virginia plans to conduct its own elk-restoration program with elk from Kentucky and will benefit from helping set up the trapping operation.

The Conservation Commission decided to restore elk to Missouri 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.

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 measures to deal 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.

Kentucky held its first elk hunt in 2001. Missouri’s elk-restoration plan calls for a hunting season as soon as the elk population can sustain one. Research conducted in conjunction with the restoration program will enable the MDC to develop a population model to help determine when hunting can begin.

Elk brought into Missouri as part of the MDC’s restoration program will undergo rigorous testing for chronic wasting disease (CWD), brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, anaplasmosis, bovine viral diarrhea, blue tongue, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, Johne’s disease and vesicular stomatitis. They also will receive treatment for internal and external parasites. These veterinary health protocols are more stringent than any that apply to livestock brought into Missouri.

Elk-vehicle accidents have been infrequent in other states with elk-restoration programs. This is partly because bull elk assemble groups of cows and guard them, rather than pursuing individual females, as white-tailed deer do. Elk are much less mobile in eastern states, where natural food is more plentiful, than in western states.

Arkansas’ elk-restoration zone has nearly twice the density of roads as Missouri’s. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) has recorded one or two elk-vehicle accidents annually since elk restoration began 25 years ago. The AGFC receives approximately two complaints of pasture damage and one or two complaints of fence damage annually.

According to the RMEF, statistics from eastern states with elk-restoration programs show no human fatalities from collisions with elk, and automobile insurance rates are no higher in states with wild free-ranging elk.