If you walk or drive through Peck Ranch Conservation Area in the Missouri Ozarks you may come across an animal that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else in the state. Elk are actually native to Missouri, though they haven’t been around for awhile. But herds of elk have recently been restored to a small patch of land a couple hours east of Springfield.
"We selected this small portion of the Ozarks specifically because it is the highest percentage of public land," David Hasenbeck, the leader of the project, said. "Its got the lowest road density and its got the lowest population of anywhere in the state.”
The elk are supposed to stay in this designated conservation area, especially while the department tries to control and grow the population. The reintroduction is still in the early stages, the department started bringing elk to the area from Kentucky in 2011. They started with just over a hundred elk and have seen that population grow since.
“We probably have somewhere around 160 animals. And over a period of time when we get over 500 animals that's probably going to be about what we want to see for a maximum population," Hasenbeck said. "And we hope to be able to handle some of that population management when it becomes proper time to institute a hunting season.”
The controlled hunting season is an end goal for the department, but Hasenbeck said it’ll take awhile to get there. They first have to grow the population and that takes close management of the herd. To help with this, Hasenbeck and his team are using an interesting piece of technology –– radio collars.
“The collars have the ability to upload locations on a schedule that we can set via a computer to a satellite which then we can pull that data off the satellite and we can look at their locations on a map and kind of see where they're at and what they're doing," Hasenbeck said.
Hasenbeck said this kind of tracking is helpful for a variety of reasons. The collar gives off a specific signal when an elk may be dead. The technicians can then track the animal and determine what caused the death. They are also useful when there's a new addition to the herd.
“We dart them with dart guns and while we have them down we actually do a field ultrasound to determine if they're pregnant or not. And if they are pregnant, we insert a second radio inside the animal and that radio is expelled with the birth of the calf," Hasenbeck said.
All of this helps the team to manage the herd and grow the population. There have been roadblocks for the project, though. In November, a 14-year-old girl hunting with her dad shot and killed an elk, mistaking it for a deer near Centralia, about 200 miles from the rest of the herd.
Overall, the department has seen the project as a success so far. A driving tour through the area has drawn tourists. And a study from the Department of Conservation says the region has seen an economic boost of more than 1 million dollars tied to the reintroduction.
“We're just kind of in a let it grow phase right now. Public support is high," Hasenbeck said. "The elk are expanding into areas that are good places for elk to be. So far, so good.”