The Missouri Conservation Commission will soon vote on a plan to release wild elk in the state. Reintroducing wild species is a laudable goal, but Missouri has changed since elk roamed here more than a century ago. Releasing wild elk in Missouri is a bad idea that is wrought with risk for many Missourians.
Mature elk are large animals — between 500 and 700 pounds — and are found today primarily in the western United States. They are grazers capable of traveling long distances and consume an average of 20 pounds of food daily. Cow elk are very protective of their calves, and bulls can be aggressive during the mating season. Elk have been released in some eastern states and migrated to others.
Public safety is an important consideration. Missourians have all too much experience with deer/vehicle collisions. A recent insurance study found damages resulting from a deer claim average $3,103. Elk are much larger than deer. If elk are released, we should expect significant damage to vehicles in addition to injuries — and possibly fatalities — to occupants. While the number of collisions is not expected to be great, is the release of elk worth increasing the risk of even a single accident? The Missouri Department of Transportation has also raised this concern in written comments submitted to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Elk are susceptible to a number of infectious diseases, some of which can be transmitted to livestock. Agriculture is critical to our state's economy, and the cattle industry has annual marketings in excess of $1.6 billion. The value of livestock sales, primarily cattle, in the release area of Carter, Shannon and Reynolds counties exceeds $13 million annually, and this value jumps to more than $165 million when the surrounding counties are included.
These values speak volumes when any action is considered that could impact our state's reputation as a source of high-quality cattle. Missouri is now free of brucellosis and tuberculosis, both of which can be devastating to both cattle and their owners statewide. Brucellosis remains a problem in the U.S. with elk testing positive for the disease in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Even the rumor that one of these diseases has infiltrated Missouri's borders will cause buyers to look elsewhere or drastically lower cattle prices.
We are not so fortunate when it comes to chronic wasting disease, which affects the brain tissues of deer and elk. The disease poses no risk to humans or cattle; however, it can kill both deer and elk. Missouri has a case of CWD, and the Department of Conservation is taking aggressive steps to prevent it from spreading in the state. Unfortunately, the live animal CWD test is not completely accurate and has not been certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even with strict testing protocols for elk being released in the state, it is only a matter of time before they come into contact with elk migrating to Missouri from other states, including Arkansas.
We have learned from other states that elk will cross roads, damage fencing and eat crops and forages regardless of whether they are on public or private land. Who will be liable for these damages? The Department of Conservation has not accepted this responsibility with other species and has not volunteered to do so with elk. Why should landowners and vehicle owners be responsible for damages resulting from an animal released intentionally by the Department of Conservation?
Many landowners have firsthand experience with other wildlife species. Management issues persist with deer, Canada Geese and otters. We also have a growing problem with wild hogs. Releasing wild elk will simply add another management challenge and take limited staff and financial resources from other areas. While organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation might offset some initial release expenses, their financial support is not expected to cover ongoing management costs.
The public is encouraged to comment on the release plan before October 14 at the MDC website's contact page under "Elk Restoration Comments."
The Conservation Commission shelved a similar elk release plan about a decade ago for reasons that remain valid today. While we should always be open to considering plans that could strengthen our local economies, rural or urban, common sense must ultimately prevail. In this case, releasing wild elk in Missouri is simply not worth the risk.
Charles E. Kruse is president of Missouri Farm Bureau and a fourth-generation farmer from Stoddard County.