To Hear The Otheworldly ‘Bugle’ Of An Elk, Take a Fall Drive Through Peck Ranch
To kick off our Sense of Community series, "Take It Outside: 10 Unique Spots to Enjoy the Natural Ozarks," we’re taking you to the hills of thick oak and pine forest in the Peck Ranch Conservation Area, home to Missouri’s wild elk population.
The nearly 24,000 acres of Peck Ranch are in rural Shannon and Carter Counties in south-central Missouri. And if you’re driving from Springfield, you should plan for two and a half hours of driving just to get there. Keep in mind that cell phone service is limited or nonexistent in many parts of these counties, so you might want to take a map or print out directions.
Peck Ranch, cherished by families for generations
Inside Flossie’s Apple Barrel, a down home restaurant in Winona, Tanya Needels spoke of Peck Ranch with a sort of reverence. She moved to this area when she was about 13, she said.
"And I can remember going there ever since I moved here. I had family that actually lived on the Peck Ranch Road. And as a child, that’s where we would go on a Friday or a Saturday evening. We’d all load up in the pickup and go down to look at the deer. There wasn’t elk then. But now, we love to take the grandkids," Needels said.
Although it's never a guarantee visitors will see the elk, Needels is confident that we will.
In 1945, the Missouri Department of Conservation purchased Peck Ranch for wild turkey management. For many here, it’s a cherished, almost sacred place where families have gone for generations of picnicking, hunting for both recreation and sustenance, and wildlife viewing.
Missouri's efforts to bring elk back to the Show-Me State
The sun is low in the sky when we arrive and meet elk biologist Aaron Hildreth with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Elk were only reintroduced in the Show-Me State starting in 2011, he said.
“And the reason we reintroduced elk to Missouri is that they are a native species,” Hildreth said.
As Europeans moved west in the young United States, that resource was hit by unregulated market hunting.
By the late 1880s, the eastern sub-species of elk was completely killed off across the country.
The subspecies that's been brought here are the Rocky Mountain elk, and there are an estimated 175 elk roaming these hills and glades, he said. Missouri’s population has nearly doubled since the elk arrived, despite a severe drought in 2012 and a significant number of deaths from brainworm, also known as meningeal worm.
We hop in his truck and drive past a sign that reads “Elk Viewing Tour.”
“It’s amazing that there are still so many Missourians that don’t know about the free-ranging, reintroduced elk that are here in the state. And it’s such a great opportunity for them to come out and see such a cool animal in the wild, in their state,” Hildreth said.
They roam wild, he said, and there are no fences that hold these elk back.
We come to a gate. The general public can continue on foot beyond this point, but public vehicles aren't allowed.
A few moments past that point, Hildreth slows down as we come around a curve. Then, we see a sight that leaves us speechless: a huge herd of dozens of elk are resting in an open meadow near the woods.
“Calves that were born in June, right now could weigh 150 to 200 pounds –which is about the same as your average white-tailed buck,” Hildreth said.
Hildreth grabs a clipboard and a pencil and begins jotting down the ages and sexes of the elk. There are around 57 elk in this meadow.
Initially, I only only see one small antlered male among this very large herd. But Hildreth spots a tree moving, and picks up his binoculars.
“If you’ll notice, there’s the tall pine tree close to the road? There’s an animal that’s in the woods behind that. That’s currently this herd bull. So he’s in there, creating a rub right now. So he’s using his antlers and rubbing the bark and branches on a tree,” Hildreth said.
Peak breeding season is late September through the first two weeks of October.
"Some of the more dominant males have yet to move back into the breeding area. As the cows get closer to peak estrus, then those males will move in and likely displace this bull. And they’ll also probably divide this group of elk. This is a really large harem right now. And as we get closer to that peak of breeding, they’ll start breaking up into smaller groups,” Hildreth said.
And just as he says that, as if on cue, the large, herd bull, emerges from the trees and walks slowly but directly to the smaller antlered bull. You can almost feel the tension. A small skirmish ensues, and the smaller bull retreats up the hill.
“The branch-antlered bull, so the older bull, just ran a yearling male off. Again, as we get closer to breeding season, the dominant bull of the harem is going to be more protective of that group,” Hildreth said.
Economic impact of eco-tourism in the rural Ozarks
One reason for establishing these elk is to bring back a native species that was here. Another reason is to provide wildlife viewing and regulated hunting opportunities for Missourians.
In 2016, the department conducted a regional study of how much money flowed to this region from tourists seeking the Peck Ranch and Current River Elk Viewing Tours.
“So we looked at just the value of visitors who came looking for elk on those two driving tours. In 2016, it was roughly a 1.3 million dollar economic impact,” Hidreth said.
In these high-poverty parts of the Ozarks, there are really two main generators of income: timber and eco-tourism. And eco-tourism often drops off when the weather gets cold. But elk viewing and, eventually, hunting, could be a year-round draw.
And since this is public land, people are encouraged to visit it.
The refuge is open to the public year-round, although the driving tour is closed during the November portion of the deer firearms season, and also during managed deer and turkey hunts. There are accessible deer blinds for people who use a wheelchair.
The refuge portion makes up about half of the nearly 24,000 acres of Peck Ranch.
There are campsites at Peck Ranch, and there’s a trailhead here for the Ozark Trail.
After dark, a couple of raccoons cross the road. During our brief time at Peck Ranch, we also see over a dozen wild turkeys, a bobcat, and too many deer to count.
Keep your distance: wild animals are unpredictable
Hildreth advises hikers and drivers to keep their distance from all wild animals, including the elk.
"Remember, that big, mature bull could be 800 pounds. And we’re also during the breeding season, or we’re nearing that breeding season, when they’re even more unpredictable,” Hildreth said.
“The reality is, likely, if you’re out walking on foot, the wildlife is probably going to avoid you. They’ve got really good eyesight, really good hearing, really good sense of smell,” Hildreth said.
He says that hikers who encounter the elk should give the animals “an extra wide berth,” and enjoy the view from a distance.
Early October the best chance to hear elk ‘bugle’
Elk are known for their distinct, otherworldly sounding call, referred to as “bugling.”
“Right now, we’re just prior to elk rut. So everybody wants to get out and hear an elk bugle. It’s a really cool sound. Yeah—it makes a lot of people really excited to come out and see wildlife,” Hildreth said.
“But by the time we get into the first and second week of October, you can hear bugling a pretty good chunk of the day. And then we’ll even have lingering bugles into early December,” Hildreth said.
When the refuge is closed to the public
The refuge portion of Peck Ranch is usually open to the public sunrise to sundown 12 months of the year—but it’s closed to driving traffic during the November portion of the deer firearms season, and the driving tour is also closed during managed deer and turkey hunts. To find out more about those dates, you can call 573-323-4249 or click on this link.
Other than those selected for the managed deer and turkey hunts, hunting is not allowed in the refuge portion of Peck Ranch. But the refuge portion only makes up about half of the roughly 24,000 acres of Peck Ranch. The other estimated 12,000 acres outside of the refuge area is permissible for people to do general hunting during regular season dates.
To reach Peck Ranch from Eminence: take Highway 106 east 7 miles to Highway H. Follow Highway H for 7 miles until you reach the Peck Ranch Conservation Area sign, then turn east onto a gravel road for 6 miles. When the road comes to a T, on the left will be the MDC Peck Ranch office, and also the start of the Elk driving tour.
To reach Peck Ranch from Springfield: Take Highway 60 to Winona. From Highway 60, turn north on Highway 19 for a short stretch. Then at the Casey’s store, take a right onto Highway H. Go 5 miles, then you’ll see a gravel road on your right with a sign for Peck Ranch. Turn onto that gravel road and drive for 6 miles until the road comes to a T. At the left will be the MDC Peck Ranch office, and also the start of the Elk driving tour.
The office also has maps of the driving tour and ranch.For more information, call (573) 323-4249 or visit www.mdc.mo.gov to download maps and brochures.
Copyright 2021 KSMU. To see more, visit KSMU.