MDC publishes plan for elk restoration

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JEFFERSON CITY–The Missouri Department of Conservation today published a draft elk-restoration plan that addresses concerns about property damage, veterinary diseases and traffic safety.

The Conservation Department posted the 39-page draft plan and a video summarizing the document on its website The plan calls for releasing up to 150 elk into a 346-square-mile area of Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties early in 2011. All released elk will undergo stringent health testing and quarantines and will be fitted with radio collars to permit tracking their movements.

Part of the cost of restoring elk to Missouri will be borne by partners, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Arkansas and other eastern states that have restored elk report significant economic benefits from elk hunting and related tourism.

While pursuing the Conservation Commission’s directive to develop an elk-restoration proposal, the Conservation Department sought comments from a wide range of stakeholders. These included the Missouri Farm Bureau, the Conservation Federation of Missouri, the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, the Ozarks Property Rights Congress, the Missouri Forest Products Association, soil and water conservation districts and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The agency also held three public open-house forums in towns bordering the proposed restoration area to gather local comments on elk restoration and sought comments through Missouri Conservationist magazine, commercial news media, the Conservation Department website and Facebook page and personal contacts with landowners. The Conservation Department also provided comment cards to visitors at the Missouri State Fair.

More than 300 people attended the public forums, and 137 filled out comment cards. Eighty-three percent of those comments favored elk restoration. Of the 2,309 comments received between July 16 and Sept. 30 by mail, phone, e-mail, Internet and personal contacts, 80 percent favored elk restoration. Seventy-five percent of comments received from people in the proposed elk-restoration zone were in favor of the idea.

Elk are native to the Show-Me State but were extirpated in the 19th century by a combination of unregulated hunting and habitat destruction. At its meeting July 16, the Conservation Commission directed to Conservation Department staff to develop a proposal for reintroducing elk to Missouri. It requested the plan for consideration at its meeting Oct. 15.

The Conservation Department developed such a plan in 2001. However, the Conservation Commission tabled the matter because of concerns about adequate habitat and chronic wasting disease (CWD). Habitat management by the Conservation Department and other large Ozarks landholders have resulted in improved elk habitat in the past 15 years. During the same time, advances in knowledge about CWD and development of a live-animal test for CWD in elk have alleviated veterinary health concerns.

Resource Scientist Lonnie Hansen said the Conservation Department was very mindful of potential elk problems when developing the draft plan.

“We know that elk restoration is a popular idea statewide and in the proposed restoration zone,” said Hansen. “Lots of Missourians are eager for the wildlife watching and hunting opportunities that other eastern states are enjoying as a result of restoring elk. However, we understand that farmers, livestock producers and others have concerns about elk restoration. We think this plan does an excellent job of addressing those concerns.”

The Conservation Department worked with the Missouri Department of Agriculture to develop veterinary health protocols for free-ranging elk that are more stringent than any that apply to livestock or farmed elk brought into Missouri. This protocol begins with accepting elk only from herds with histories of health surveillance and no evidence of health issues.

Elk brought from other states will undergo rigorous testing for CWD, brucellosis, bovine tuberculosis, anaplasmosis, bovine viral diarrhea, blue tongue, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, Johne’s disease and vesicular stomatitis. They will be quarantined in their state of origin and again in Missouri before being released into the proposed restoration zone.

All released elk will carry radio-tracking collars that transmit a “mortality” signal if they stop moving for an extended time. This will permit the Conservation Department to recover all elk that die and examine them to determine the cause of death.

To minimize the potential for elk conflicts, the Conservation Department selected a restoration zone with large public landholdings and public access. Forty-nine percent of land in the zone is owned by the Conservation Department, the USDA Forest Service or the National Park Service. Another 30 percent is owned by the L-A-D Foundation (Pioneer Forest) and The Nature Conservancy. All these landowners support elk restoration and permit hunting on their land.

Other factors that contributed to selecting the 346-square-mile elk restoration zone are:

• Low road density – The proposed restoration zone has 1.2 miles per road per square mile, compared to 2.1 miles per square mile in Arkansas’ elk-restoration zone. Arkansas records one or two elk-vehicle accidents per year.

• Suitable habitat – Savanna and glade habitat already exists in the restoration zone, and work to restore open, grassy areas continues.

• Strong landowner support – The Conservation Department will work with willing landowners to improve the attractiveness of their property to elk.

• Defined geography – The elk-restoration zone is bounded by roads, posted property lines and other identifiable landscape features, making it easy to know when elk are outside the restoration zone and remove them from areas where they are not wanted.

• Minimal agricultural activity – Ninety-three percent of the proposed elk-restoration zone is forested. Cropland makes up .1 percent (222 acres) of the zone. Cattle grazing is very limited.

“Missouri has lots of places where elk would do very well, but the potential for conflicts is just too great outside the area we have chosen,” said Hansen. “We will remove elk where they are not wanted, and we will use hunting to keep the population at a size that is sustainable in the restoration area.”

-Jim Low-