The return of Missouri Elk

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Recently I was invited to the Peck Ranch Conservation Area to learn about the Missouri Elk program. Once plentiful in the area, elk were all gone from Missouri by 1865. In July 2010, the Conservation Commission directed the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) to reinstate plans to restore elk to a suitable area in southeast Missouri. Welcome to the Peck Ranch. After more than 150 years the hills around Peck Ranch Conservation Area once again echo with the bugles of elk. I met up with David Hasenbeck, Conservation Department’s Elk Program Manager at 5 am. Yup, you have to get up early if you want to see elk.

It was one of the most interesting mornings I’ve had in a long while. David and I met up with Joe Roy and Micah Walker, Wildlife Research Technicians with the University of Missouri. These two spend every day following the elk around, collecting data for the scientists and researchers at the university. A big part of their job is to radio track, dart and collar the elk. It’s David’s job is to manage the overall operation of the elk program and in the field, he’s one of the guys who darts the elk. How would you like to have this job? Very cool. Admittedly, not a get rich quick scheme, all the guys will tell you straight up, they have the best darn job in the world. Their passion for what they are doing filled the truck for hours. What a day!

All in all, the Peck Ranch Conservation Area is a very beautiful place, but when you see the elk in the morning mist doing their elk stuff, it is just a stunning experience.

My name is David Hasenbeck. I am a southern Missouri native and Graduate of Southeast Missouri State University who has spent nearly 25 years working as a wildlife biologist in the Missouri Ozarks. I lived and worked on Peck Ranch Conservation Area the first ten years of my career so it is very exciting to come back and work with the elk project.

573: Tell us why Missouri brought the elk back.
MDC is mandated to manage and restore the forest fish and wildlife of the state of Missouri. Elk are native to the state, and it is part of the MDC mandate to restore species lost to the state when feasible and reasonable. Likewise there has been strong citizen interest in an elk restoration for years.

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573: Tell us about the Peck Ranch.
Peck Ranch was a cutover 36 square mile chunk of eastern Ozarks that the MDC acquired because it was home for some of the last remaining wild turkeys in the state. MDC implemented habitat management to improve conditions for turkeys and as the turkey population grew over the years, wild turkeys from Peck Ranch were used in restocking efforts across Missouri as well as a couple other states. Peck Ranch Conservation Area is important for restoration efforts such as wild turkey and elk, but this area of the Ozarks is also a very high priority ecological area with many other unique plants and animals. The Conservation Department and their public and private land partners continue to remain very active in managing all area lands for the benefit of wildlife and the region is now a jewel of eastern Ozarks conservation.

Peck Ranch Conservation Area is in northwest Carter County and eastern Shannon County, north of Fremont. The area consists of 23,762 acres of rugged, forested hills and hollows. Limestone and hyalite glades provide natural openings among the oak-pine forest that dominates the region. Narrow ridges range from 900 to 1,000 feet in elevation. The area’s highest point is Stegall Mountain, 1,348 feet above sea level. Rogers Creek and Mill Creek, which flow into the Current River, meander through the area. Peck Ranch began as the dream of a wealthy Chicago businessman. After acquiring 19,000 acres along Mill and Rogers creeks, George Peck and other investors established the Mid-Continent Iron Company. Peck’s dream included clearcutting Peck Ranch to supply the 100 cords of fuel per day needed to fire the smelter’s blast furnaces. He employed 200 families and installed his own teams to haul cordwood. The company town which sprang up around the smelter became known as Midco. During World War I, the area continued to boom. The U.S. Government spent $3.5 million to install a wood alcohol distillery at Midco to be used in making ammunition. This period of prosperity was brief. The low-grade iron ore mill at Midco folded after the end of the war and a flu epidemic ravaged the Ozarks. Peck returned to Chicago. The workers who remained in the area tried to make a living on the abused land. When prohibition ended, the demand for white oak barrels surged. Griffith Stave Company bought the remaining timber rights on Peck Ranch and revived the area’s timber industry. The boom was short-lived, and Peck Ranch was once again for sale. In 1945, the Missouri Department of Conservation purchased Peck Ranch for wild turkey management. Today, diverse management techniques, including prescribed fire and forest products harvesting methods, are being used to maintain and restore the many natural communities on Peck Ranch.

573: Tell about the elk.
Watching – and hearing – wild elk is an awe-inspiring experience you can enjoy right here in Missouri. The Conservation Department worked with local communities, landowners, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and other conservationists to relocate more than 100 wild elk from Kentucky to the restoration zone in Reynolds, Carter, and Shannon counties in 2011. For great opportunities to view Missouri’s wild elk in their natural environment, take the self-guided driving tours at Peck Ranch.

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573: Do they wander off from the area?
Most of the elk spend most of their time on Peck Ranch and the surrounding area, we do have a few animals who tend to stay in other areas not far away and we may occasionally have an individual animal taking a foray out of the area. Our radio collars tell us that about 80% of locations still fall on Peck Ranch and we will probably see that number slowly decline over time as the herd grows and spreads. The fact that the herd has remained around the release site is a testament to all the good habitat work conducted in the area around the release site. Even as the herd grows and extends its range, Peck Ranch will always likely be the core of Missouri elk habitat.

The animals are not fenced or restricted in any way but the majority of the herd still spends most of their time within the elk zone. Peck Ranch Conservation Area represents about 10% of the elk zone and the elk are spending about 80% of their time on Peck Ranch proper and less than 10% of their locations have been outside of the elk zone.

573: How many elk do we want in Missouri?
Target population is 400 to 500 elk within the elk zone in portions of Reynolds, Shannon, and Carter counties. It may take up to twenty years to reach these numbers.

573: Will people ever be allowed to ever hunt elk in Missouri?
Yes. We hope to be in position to offer limited managed hunt in the future when the population grows. It may be several years before we will be able to offer a managed hunt and it may initially only be a few permits. As the elk herd grows, we then hope to be able to release more permits over time.

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573: Do the elk pose any danger to hikers or peepers with cameras?
No danger to outdoor recreationists, but just as any other wild animal encountered in the field. elk should be given ample room to move though when encountering them in the field.

573: How can people see the elk for themselves?
The self-guided driving tours have become a popular tourist attraction year-round – especially in October, when bull elks are bugling as part of their mating ritual. The best times to see elk and other wildlife are right after sunrise and right before sunset. To help visitors find elk, MDC has designated driving-tour routes, shown on online maps of the Conservation Atlas: maps of Peck Ranch CA and Current River CA. Signage at the sites directs you to the driving routes. The tour routes are open sunrise to sunset daily, unless closed because of inclement weather or a managed deer hunt. The driving tour routes at Peck Ranch are closed for managed hunts select dates, October thru December. For information about elk driving tours at Peck Ranch CA, call 855-263-2355; for information about the Current River CA, dial 573-663-7130.

Maps and other information are available at the Twin Pines Conservation Education Center, one mile east of Winona on Route 60. Twin Pines is open Tuesdays thru Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.

People are encouraged to take photographs from their vehicles, but please do not disturb elk or other wildlife in any way. It’s important for visitors to know, gravel roads on Peck Ranch may not be accessible to vehicles with a low ground clearance and some roads may be impassible at times, because of high water at stream crossings.

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