[Elk mating call.]
Jill Pritchard: Nope. That's not the sound I make when I stub my toe on my coffee table. That's the sound of one of the most majestic animals you can encounter in Missouri, elk.
Hey there, and welcome back to another episode of Nature Boost. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Many are family with white-tailed deer. Maybe you've hunted them or spotted some in your backyard. But did you know deer aren't the only antlered animals we have in Missouri?
If you've ever seen an elk, you know what an incredible sighting it is. They can measure in at around nine feet tall when you include their antlers and can weigh around 800 pounds. The bulls, or male elk, evolved to have these thick neck muscles that help support their sizable antlers.
Aaron Hildreth: They really can reach 40 or more pounds, so imagine carrying 4.5 to 5 gallons of milk or water on top of your head for six-plus months.
Jill Pritchard: I can barely carry a gallon of milk into my fridge from getting it at the grocery.
That's MDC's Elk Biologist Aaron Hildreth. We spoke about elk while driving around Peck Ranch Conservation area in the Missouri Ozarks.
So, a little history lesson - elk naturally occurred in Missouri until the 1880s when their population was wiped out due to over-hunting. But over the last several years, with the help of numerous partners and supporters, MDC re-introduced about a hundred elk from Kentucky to a remote stretch of land in the Ozarks called Peck Ranch. Aaron explained the secluded area was an ideal habitat for elk for several reasons.
Aaron Hildreth: Missouri today is not what it was in the 1800s. We have a lot more people in Missouri and we have a lot more row crop agriculture. And elk, they have a big belly. So, they have the ability to eat a lot, and potentially to cause problems for people. So, we looked at where in Missouri is best. We had to think of that aspect. We also had to try to think of, for a state that's 93 percent privately owned, do we have anywhere in the state where we have a large chunk of public land? We looked in the Missouri Ozarks and this portion of Carter, Shannon, and Reynolds Counties, roughly 80 percent of the landscape where elk are re-introduced into is publicly owned or public have access to that property.
So that's a really cool thing in a state that's 93 percent privately owned. Also, the Missouri Ozarks have basically no row crop agriculture. They have a fairly low human population density, and a fairly low road density. So, a good spot where elk can have some space, be elk, and lessen the likelihood of elk-causing problems.
Jill Pritchard: Since reintroduction efforts began in 2011, Missouri's elk population has now grown to more than 200, and their range has expanded to cover portions of Carter, Reynolds, and Shannon Counties. And what's even cooler is that Aaron has seen this reintroduction effort go full circle.
Aaron Hildreth: I feel kind of fortunate. I've been able to see this kind of full circle. I was doing my masters work in Kentucky in 2012 and 2013. So, the animals that were reintroduced in those two years are the study animals I was looking at the impacts of basically stress and any physiological changes that resulted from that relocation or translocation of those animals to, from Kentucky to Missouri. So, it's kind of a cool full circle for me to see them in Kentucky, and now here in Missouri.
Jill Pritchard: Elk are the second largest members of the cervid or deer family. Other members include, obviously white-tailed deer and also moose. Elk have a brown to sometimes reddish coloration with a light-colored rump patch. The Native Americans refer to elk as "wapiti" meaning white rump. They spend much of their day in forests and glades, venturing out into more open areas at dawn and dusk.
[Wildlife sounds including insects, birds and elk.]
Shortly before the fall rut or breeding season, the males will begin to compete for the females. They'll spar each other to establish dominance, and then the dominant bull will begin to gather females into a harem. He'll breed with each female and then defend his harem from other bulls.
Aaron Hildreth: Harems are basically the groups of elk that form during the breeding season. Typically, it can be anywhere from just a couple of females to a group of 30 or 40 females. And then usually comprised of one herd bull, and there's usually satellites. So younger, just non-dominant bulls that are trying to jostle cows away from the dominant bull or the herd bull. Sometimes they're successful. Other times they're not. Typically, those larger harems, it's much harder to keep 30 or 40 cows in one spot and away from other bulls.
Jill Pritchard: They can get that big, 30 or 40 cows in a harem?
Aaron Hildreth: It can be.
Jill Pritchard: For one bull?
Aaron Hildreth: Yeah. That bull's working really, really hard to try to keep that harem together. That's not, I would argue that's probably not an ideal harem size. About half that size is probably better. But some of the bulls, you know, may try for that, so. I would say this past year, summer 2019, I probably saw eight or nine harems in the area. The biggest group was actually, again, about a group of 30 to 35 cows. I've seen one - it didn't last very long, but I've seen one harem that crept up near 65 to 70 cows a couple years back. That was not a, that was probably a little more than that bull could keep in one area. So that group didn't last very long.
Jill Pritchard: So, let's talk about that elk call. It's called a bugle. It's an incredible sound the bulls make during the rut, but you have to wonder, how can an animal taller than Shaquille O'Neal and about as heavy as a grand piano make such a nightmare-inducing scream? Researchers wondered the same thing and figured out that when the bulls’ bugle, they're actually making two different sounds at once - a low-pitched roar, and then a high-pitched whistle. The bulls are able to produce both sounds using their mouth and nostrils simultaneously. A terrifyingly beautiful sound, and one of their main ways of communication.
Fun fact, elk can also chuckle.
This sound is another way they express dominance to other males and to attract females. Bugling and chuckling isn't the only behavior bulls engage in during the rut. They also like to scent up.
Aaron Hildreth: While whitetails don't usually bathe in their own urine, you know, whitetails will pee on their tarsal gland. So, the little weird patches of fur that seem to get really, really dark on the hind legs of a deer, right around where we think of as their knee, those are the tarsal glands. That's one of the methods deer use. With elk, wallows are frequently something that they also pee in. Water or muddy depression that they'll kind of roll around in or mess around in.
Jill Pritchard: That's right. Males will basically dig a hole, fill it with their own urine, and roll around in it to attract a mate. Suddenly that phase of Axe spraying that every middle school boy went through doesn't seem as bad. We'll talk more about elk with Aaron after the break. Stay tuned.
Male: The sights and smells of fall are evocative and unmistakable. So, too are the sounds. Singing crickets mark the transition from summer to fall. Crisp, dead leaves cover the ground and crunch underfoot. Squirrels raise a leafy rattle and chatter as they scurry for acorns to bury and find again as fall fades into winter. Deer look for mates, and they move restlessly. Bucks vying for dominance fight, and their antlers clack and scrape.
Migrating geese cut across the autumn skies in wide V formations. Their chorus of honks fill the chill air, first softly, then stridently, and then fades away. Spend some time outdoors this fall enjoying the sounds along with the sights and smells.
Female: Discover more by signing up today at discovernaturenotes.com.
Male: The Missouri Department of Conservation, serving nature and you.
Jill Pritchard: Welcome back to Nature Boost. We're talking elk this episode with MDC's Cervid Biologist, Aaron Hildreth down at Peck Ranch Conservation Area. MDC's elk restoration not only opened a possibility for a hunting season, but it was a huge boost to the economy through wildlife viewing, a popular pastime for Missourians.
Aaron Hildreth: Elk have far more value than, here in Missouri, than just the hunting side of it. On the other side of the coin, we look at kind of the wildlife viewing and just people wanting to see elk. And we look at the Missouri Ozarks, and the key economic drivers in parts of this area, you have hardwood timber and you have tourism. You know, a lot of the tourism right now revolves around activities on the Current River. While you have some activities that go on in the winter, most of that is summer, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, floating, canoeing, kayaking. So outside of that time of the year, there's not a ton of stuff on the tourism side. Elk don't care if it's the middle of the summer or middle of winter. They're still out doing “elky” things no matter what. So, you know, people have the opportunity to see elk 365 days a year.
We looked at just the driving tours on Current River and Peck Ranch Conservation Area back in 2016. Visitors that came to those areas to view elk, that added, we estimated roughly a 1.3 or 1.6 million dollars to the local economy just for people that wanted to go view elk on two conservation areas. As the population of elk grows, that economic driver of more people coming to view elk should only go up. So that is a potential for a really good thing for these communities.
Jill Pritchard: Wildlife viewing is, I think, one of Missourians' most favorite pastimes.
Aaron Hildreth: Absolutely. We've got, you know, fantastic birding opportunities in the state, and we have a lot of birders. You know, we have a lot of people that, even before we reintroduced elk, a lot of the green browse openings that we had here on Peck Ranch were because people drove to Peck Ranch to look at wildlife. So, look at all the deer, all the turkey, the skunks, the armadillos, all the different bird species. You know, Missourians love their wildlife. Just providing a really big, charismatic animal on that landscape for Missourians to view, a lot of Missourians take advantage of that opportunity.
Jill Pritchard: If you've never visited Peck Ranch Conservation Area, I highly encourage you to check it out. In addition to the elk driving tour, the area offers miles of hiking trails, primitive camping, and a variety of stunning landscapes. But as you take the driving tour, there are a few important things to remember.
Aaron Hildreth: We strongly encourage folks who are out there to view wildlife, both for your safety and for others who are trying to see wildlife, you know, when we get out of our cars, the animals know the difference between us on foot walking towards them and us staying on a road and watching them from a distance. Stay in your cars. Enjoy them from a distance. Take that in, but you know, don't, don't approach wildlife. They are wild animals and unpredictable. If for some reason there's an animal that is coming to you, and maybe trying to stick its head around your car, roll up your window. Don't pet animals. Don't feed animals. These are, this is wildlife. These are not pets. These are not livestock. These are wild animals. Give them their space.
Keep in mind that, you know, a mature bull can be 750, 800 pounds and they can run in excess of 30 miles an hour. It's like getting hit by a freight train. It's a bad life choice to put yourself in the way of wildlife. And even the cows, you know, like any other mom, they protect their young. And you know, whether they have young or not, if they feel cornered, they may very well attack. And we can have cows that are 550, 600 pounds. That is a very big animal that you don't want to make mad.
Jill Pritchard: In addition to Peck ranch, you can also go on an elk driving tour nearby at the Current River Conservation Area. But if driving down to the Missouri Ozarks isn't realistic, there is another option, if you're in St. Louis. Lone Elk Park is a wildlife management area, managed by St. Louis County that offers tours of elk, bison, deer, turkey, and waterfowl. Though the animals are captive, it's still a great opportunity to see and learn more about them. Insider tip - park staff feed the animals first thing in the morning. So, the best time to see them is before 8:00 a.m.
Aaron Hildreth: They're really cool, and it's awesome that they're back here in Missouri. I strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of the opportunity to come here to either Peck Ranch or Current River, or even on park service property. Come out here and view the elk. They really are a cool creature. You can hear bugling anytime between late September and sometimes even as far or as late into early December.
So, you can hear them bugle. There's camping here at Peck Ranch. So, you can camp out and hear an elk bugle in the middle of the night. It's a really cool sound and a really cool opportunity for Missourians.
Jill Pritchard: The restoration of elk in Missouri is another conservation success story. And come this October, MDC will offer five lucky Missourians the chance to hunt elk in the state's first hunting season in modern history. To learn more about elk and elk restoration, visit missouriconservation.org.
[Bumper music playing.]
Thanks again to MDC's Cervid Biologist, Aaron Hildreth for the great information. And thank you for tuning in to another episode. I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation urging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors.
[Nature sounds with elk.]
[End of recording.]