JEFFERSON CITY – A decision is expected in October on whether to reintroduce elk to Missouri.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has made plans to restore the native species 10 years after a similar effort stalled.
The Missouri Conservation Commission, the governing board of the Conservation Department, directed its staff on July 16 to research and develop plans to restore between 80 and 150 elk in a 365-square mile area encompassing Reynolds, Shannon and Carter counties in south-central Missouri.
The Department of Conservation is gathering public comment until Oct. 1. A recommendation is expected to go before the Conservation Commission on Oct. 15.
The agency held public meetings in Van Buren, Eminence and Ellington, which are adjacent to the proposed restoration site. With about 300 people providing feedback, a "large majority" of them favored the project, Joe Jerek of the Missouri Department of Conservation said.
A more specific count of the positions reflected in the public comments will be made after Oct. 1, and presented to the Conservation Commission on Oct. 15, Jerek said.
Leslie Holloway, director of state and local governmental affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau, said her organization remains opposed to restoring elk in Missouri, as they had been a decade ago.
The Farm Bureau's objections center on potential damage to crops and fence lines, possible disease transmissions to wildlife and livestock and vehicle collisions.
Under the new plan, measures to keep elk off private land include radio collars and microchips to track movement. The majority of the land where the elk would free-roam, 60 percent, is publicly owned with another 27 percent owned privately by the L-A-D Foundation, which supports efforts to restore elk, Jerek said. The foundation was created by Missouri conservationist Leo Drey.
Elk that stray onto private land would be identified and moved.
Chronic wasting disease, transmittable and infectious to elk, white-tailed deer and moose, was an emerging disease 10 years ago when the restoration project was first introduced in 2000.
A decade later, the Missouri Department of Conservation is more educated about how the disease acts, Shawn Gruber, a district supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, said.
Testing live elk for chronic wasting disease has become available since the restoration was first introduced in 2000. At that time, only dead elk could be tested, which is not effective in containing disease, Gruber said.
In the new plan, each elk would be quarantined both before and after entering Missouri, and tested for any disease posing a threat to other wildlife and livestock.
After the quarantine period, elk that do die would be subjected to a comprehensive round of testing for disease, including chronic wasting.
Taylor Woods, state veterinarian for the Missouri Department of Agriculture, said the disease testing is the most stringent health protocol ever developed regarding livestock and the movement of elk across state lines.
The elk would likely come from Arkansas or Kentucky where the testing protocol has already shown success against major problems with diseases, Woods said.
Outside of disease, the department notes few collisions have been reported in other states with restored elk populations. For example, in Kentucky, a restored population of 10,000 elk confined to a 6,400-square mile area, caused only 20 elk-vehicle accidents. No fatalities have been reported in the history of Kentucky's elk restoration project, Jerek said.
The Conservation Department has been restoring glade and woodland habitats around the proposed restoration site that features little agriculture, few roads and large tracts of public land.
If the elk succeed, they would eventually be hunted to maintain a suitable population, Gruber said.
In a speech during the Conservation Federation of Missouri's 75th anniversary on Sept. 10 in Columbia, Gov. Jay Nixon voiced his support for the elk restoration project. He said restoring elk was a "continuation of a native species" and that it would be an economic generator via increased tourism and hunting revenues.
-- Eva Dou of the Missourian's staff contributed to this report.