Elk return to Missouri

After an arduous trapping effort in Kentucky, biologists have returned this majestic species to the state
Tuesday, May 17, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:41 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 7, 2011
A bull elk stands on a ridge eating grass at dusk in Knott County in Kentucky. The training center opened in 2007 on the site of a reclaimed surface mine and is a noted elk viewing area. Elk are most active near sunrise and sunset.

COLUMBIA — This was an important call.

It was 2 p.m. on Jan. 14 when Clint Dalbom’s phone rang. On the other end was David Hasenbeck, a Missouri Department of Conservation worker stationed at elk trapping site No. 2 in the mountainous Begley Wildlife Management Area in Pineville, Ky.

Restoring elk: New strategies

The Missouri Conservation Commission, after abandoning thoughts of bringing elk to the state 10 years ago, approved a new plan in October for restoring elk. Major points in the plan call for:

  • Establishing an elk herd at the 346-square-mile Peck Ranch.
  • Bringing 150 elk to the state over three years. Ron Dent, project coordinator, said biologists won’t settle on a total herd number until they know how elk adapt.
  • Using hunting to maintain the population. The department hopes to allow hunting when the herd reaches 400 to 600 animals. Biologist Lonnie Hansen believes that could happen as soon as 2015.
  • Placing GPS collars on the elk to track and study their behavior and removing elk within 24 hours when someone complains that they’ve roamed onto their property. Strategies include scaring the elk back to Peck Ranch with rubber pellets or tranquilizing and transporting them in cattle trailers. A last resort would be to kill a wandering elk.
  • Planting cool- and warm-season grasses, along with other plants, to ensure proper habitat. Hansen said Peck Ranch has 3,200 acres of vegetation and 600 acres of meadow.
  • Holding the trapped elk for 90 days to test for chronic wasting disease, bovine tuberculosis and other illnesses.

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“Clint …” Dalbom said, remembering the call and imitating Hasenbeck’s booming, drawn-out voice. “We have seven elk in Trap No. 2 and two more headed toward the gate.”

Hasenbeck wondered whether Dalbom, Missouri’s elk trapping coordinator, wanted him to trigger the contraption that would enclose the elk.

“How many other elk are around?” Dalbom asked. When he learned there weren't any, he didn’t hesitate. Shut the gate, he commanded.

There was a long pause. Then Hasenbeck returned to the phone.

“Clint … Missourah has elk,” he reported.

The successful trap came on the 14th day of the department’s efforts to capture Kentucky elk for eventual release in Missouri. The restoration project, which resulted in the delivery of 34 elk to Missouri on May 5, is among the biggest and most complicated the department has undertaken. Elk haven’t roamed Missouri since the Civil War era, when they disappeared as a result of overhunting. The department has returned deer, wild turkey and otters to the state but never any creature the size of an elk.

A bull elk stands 6 feet tall, and that’s not counting his branch-like antlers, which can extend another 6 feet. From snout to tail, an elk can exceed a chopper motorcycle in length and weigh as much as 800 pounds.

Trapping and relocating elk aren’t easy tasks. Over the past six months, the department has built complicated traps and holding pens, and it has battled frigid weather, stubborn snowstorms, fog and nearly endless boredom. The elk endured rigorous testing for disease before they were loaded into trailers and transported 500 miles across the winding roads of Kentucky, all the way to their new home in south-central Missouri’s Peck Ranch Conservation Area.

The trapping is part of a three-year plan to bring about 150 elk to Missouri. Project coordinator Ron Dent said it’s the biggest challenge in his 36 years with the department.

“It’s something you look back on your career and say, ‘I was a part of that,’” Dent said.

Although the department is primarily interested in restoring a native species to the state, the project potentially will have as much impact on people. In Kentucky, which has accomplished the largest elk restoration east of the Rocky Mountains, elk have proved a boon to some and a nuisance to others. Entrepreneurs have seized business opportunities, leading elk tours and guided hunts or even turning elk dung into jewelry. Others, however, complain that elk are a hazard on highways and a threat to property.

No one in the towns of Winona, Van Buren and Eminence — which lie near the Peck Ranch restoration zone — knows what impact the elk will have here. An MU anthropologist suggests it's not the place elk would choose to live. The Conservation Department, though, is convinced it's the right thing to do.

“It’s exciting, the mission that we’re on,” Dalbom said. “When is the last time a large game species like this has been reintroduced into Missouri? Maybe never.

“I feel like we’re making history.”

The catch

For 13 days, Missouri conservation workers had nothing to show for their efforts.

Sub-zero temperatures and knee-deep snow messed with the mechanisms rigged to close the gates on trapped elk. On Jan. 13, more than 37 elk ventured in and out of the pens, but the crews couldn’t catch one. The elk taunted them like schoolyard bullies withholding a prized possession from a classmate.

“At that point we had been bumping our heads against the wall trying to get something to happen,” Dalbom said. “And every time, we had something wrong.”

The conservation crews worked in teams of three, alternating 12-hour shifts at one of the two trapping sites. Crews often volunteered to stay longer, whether to lay down more alfalfa and corn as bait or to mend a broken trap.

“When you are catching elk, you don’t need to sleep,” crew member Jim Braithwait said.

During a shift, three workers lived in the cabin of a Ford truck, the radio set to bluegrass or "Swap Shop," a program that allowed callers to sell everything from cats to lawnmowers. Storytelling relieved the mind-numbing boredom and cold.

They drank Mountain Dew and ate cheese crackers, beef jerky and candy. Pizza Hut was a treat. Meanwhile, they remained fixed on the traps some 200 yards away — waiting.

“Typical day, you sit there for hours on end,” Dalbom said.

None of the crew had trapped elk before. Now, with little training, they had 20 days to lure 50 cows and young bulls, called spikes, into a 20-foot-diameter pen. Adult bulls were deemed too dangerous to trap, given their weight and the size of their antlers.

Despite persistent mechanical problems, Dalbom said the crew remained positive. They knew it was only a matter of time.

It was on the 14th day that Hasenbeck reported the first catch to Dalbom. Before Dalbom could respond, Hasenbeck dropped his phone, and his crew scrambled into action. Monotony turned to panic, boredom to anticipation, sleepiness to an adrenaline rush.

The workers hitched a cattle trailer to the truck, drove it to the pen and backed it into a chute attached to the entrapment. Poles and noise prodded the elk into the trailer, then the crew moved the animals to one of three larger holding pens that can hold 20 elk each. As the workers moved the elk through a series of chutes, they sawed off the bulls’ antlers. It was exhausting.

“You go through the full range of emotion on this type of project, from disappointment to sheer excitement,” Dalbom said.

By Jan. 20, the last day of trapping, the crews’ faces were haggard, with shaggy beards and dark circles under their eyes. But their enthusiasm remained. The crew had finished with 49 elk, just one short of its goal.

“It’s a dream come true,” crew member Scott McWilliams said.

Reviving old plans

Ten years ago, returning elk to Missouri seemed a fantasy.

In 2000, conservation deer biologist Lonnie Hansen studied the feasibility of restoring elk, reading scores of studies, talking to counterparts in Arkansas and Kansas, attending seminars.

Hansen learned that Missouri could sustain elk and determined that Peck Ranch provided suitable habitat. It was far from roads, and 79 percent of the land was open to hunting.

But the timing was off. Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Tennessee also were reintroducing elk, so there was a lot of competition for the animals. Plus, Missouri knew little about chronic wasting disease, or CWD, which can spread among elk and deer. The Missouri Conservation Commission was wary.

“We had good support for it and a good area, but the CWD stuff kind of developed, and we decided to put it on hold,” Hansen said.

Everything had changed nine years later. Kentucky had completed its restoration, boasting a population of 10,000 elk in a 16-county region in and near the Appalachians. Surrounding states had stable herds. Missouri had learned how to test for chronic wasting disease, and crews had opened up forests and created meadows at Peck Ranch. Hansen said the department refocused on elk.

“Elk are one of those megafaunas that people like," he said.

Dent said the department began receiving letters asking why Missouri had no elk to hunt, then the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation got involved, encouraging the state to bring back elk. Surrounding states had elk, so why not Missouri?

And now, Dent said, “we can get some of these elk nearby rather than out West.”

On Oct. 15, the Missouri Conservation Commission approved the plan, and the department soon penned an agreement with Kentucky to trap its first batch of elk.

The project's first-year budget was $411,185 in supplies and wages. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, with its Missouri and Virginia chapters, pledged $360,000 to the effort. Virginia next year hopes to trap and relocate elk, too, using the Kentucky pens that Missouri helped build. The Appalachian Wildlife Foundation and the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation together have pledged another $85,000.

Tom Jones, senior regional director for the Elk Foundation, predicted Missouri will be good for elk.

“They’ve got a tremendous conservation department that has laid out a very well-thought-out model for this program,” Jones said. “It’s based on overwhelming public favor, and just knowing that elk have been here in the past — and thrived — is a good reason for Missouri to have elk once again.”

Conservation workers conducted public forums in Van Buren, Eminence and Ellington. They found that about 70 percent of residents liked the notion of bringing back elk.

Others dislike the idea. State Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, and state Sen. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, each proposed bills that would make the Conservation Department financially responsible for damage elk cause. Committees passed both bills, but neither made it to floor debate.

Schad said his bill would have had no impact on the reintroduction. “But they’ve assured me there’ll be a minimal amount of damage and that they will maintain these elk. My hope is that the little damage caused by the elk, the (Conservation Department) will cover (the costs), and not the good people of Missouri.”

Learning from Kentucky

Kentucky’s restoration began with annual releases from 1997 to 2002.

In that span the state released 1,500 elk into 16 southeastern counties, hoping to establish a large population, much of it on habitat reclaimed after years of coal mining. The area was far from most roads and people. Still, there was controversy.

Kentucky conservation officials "told us it’s the greatest thing since peanut butter,” said William Amburgey, owner of Saddle Up Elk Tours in Mallie, Ky., about 80 miles north of the Tennessee border. He also was a member of the Kentucky team that trapped elk in Utah, where not everyone likes the elk. “When we were out West, people would say, ‘Dang, what do you want this for?’”

Now, more than 10,000 elk roam this corner of Kentucky. Elk generate more than $500,000 in annual revenue for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources through hunting lottery and license fees. It’s been a financial boost for Amburgey and his wife and for taxidermists, meat processors and other small-town businesses. Knott County hosts an annual elk festival and proclaims itself the Elk Capital of the East.

On a cool Friday afternoon in January, Amburgey pulled up in his gray 4x4 truck, just past a rusty gate leading to a gravel road. The sun was shining, offering a break from the gray skies and snow that had dominated winter. The rear window of his truck sported a decal of a man on horseback, leading another horse packing elk antlers and hide.

If it were summer or fall, Amburgey would have been arriving at 6 a.m. with a trailer full of horses for guests eager to spot some elk.

Inside the truck, Amburgey held a red Folgers coffee cup in his left hand and the handle of a gear-shift carved from elk antler in his right. Coffee and elk: his two addictions. He talked about elk while speeding along the twisting trail where he and his wife give horseback tours. Along the way, torn bushes and small trees with broken branches proved the elk had been there.

“Oh, there’s an elk!” Amburgey said, reaching for binoculars to scan a distant hillside. He fiddled with the focus to get a better view, then realized he was scrutinizing a boulder.

“When you are looking for elk, you have to look for the tan spots.”

William and Bernice Amburgey have run Saddle Up Elk Tours for five years, taking riders along a trail up an Appalachian mountain and sometimes getting within 30 feet of an elk. Along the way riders might see Ol’ Muddy, the elk always covered in mud, or Old No. 38, named for the number on the tag around his neck. In fall, they can hear the bulls’ bugle, a high-pitched mating call that sends chills down William Amburgey’s back every time he hears it.

“Everyone’s reaction is always mouth gaping and eyes popping,” Bernice Amburgey said of tourists blown away by the bugling.

The Amburgeys have had more than 500 customers, some from as far as Australia. Only two have gone away without a glimpse. It is a side business to their regular jobs. William Amburgey is a conservation officer for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife; Bernice Amburgey is an operations manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They plan to run the tours full-time after they retire in five years.

“You don’t make a killing, but you get to ride horseback, see elk, and someone pays you to do it,” William Amburgey said. “You can’t beat that.”

The Amburgeys apply for elk hunting tags annually. But only 800 people a year win a tag and a chance at what William Amburgey calls the experience of a lifetime. They had no luck until last season, when Bernice Amburgey got a permit.

For a week straight in October, the Amburgeys woke before sunrise and drove to different landowner properties where they were allowed to hunt elk. After a couple hours of early hunting, Bernice Amburgey would go to work and anxiously await an afternoon return to the woods. For six days her frustration grew. On the day before her license was to expire, they hunted near the Knott County Sportsplex. She caught a glimpse through mist of a large bull coming out of the timber and into a dip.

“When I first shot him, I thought I missed him because he didn’t act like he was hit,” she said. “I was like, ‘Did I miss? Should I shoot again?’ I was nervous.”

To her surprise, she had killed a larger elk next to her target.

“I was just tickled that he was bigger than I thought,” she said.

The trophy now is mounted on her living room wall, dwarfing the otherwise impressive deer racks on either side. Elk burger, elk steaks and elk roasts stuff their kitchen freezer. They had to put a second freezer in their barn to store the 500 pounds of meat.

“When you hunt and kill elk, friends come out of the woodwork — friends you didn’t know you had,” William said. “Because it’s good eating.”

Warning signs

Stoney Fork, Ky., is about three hours from the Amburgeys along snake-like Highway 221. About two miles from town, a diamond-shaped road sign features the silhouette of an elk. Nearby, a 4-foot wire fence lies on the ground, destroyed by elk.

It was near here about two years ago that Missy Jones was driving her silver Chevrolet Metro to Bible study at dusk. She had just crossed the railroad tracks when her car collided with a bull elk standing in the road.

“I didn’t see him until I was right up on him,” Jones said.

The impact sent the huge elk rolling onto the roof of her car and crashing through the windshield. Medics, she said, “couldn’t believe I had got out of it alive.”

“When me and my grandma got down there, the elk was still alive, and they had to shoot it,” Jones’ daughter, Cindy Ellison, said. “It was terrifying.”

Jones escaped the incident with four stitches on a finger and a bruised, scratched face. Her car was totaled. She still suffers a dull pain in her right eye, a constant reminder of the accident. She said she jumps at every movement on the road while driving, and she has trouble gripping with the injured finger.

Jones used to watch elk, but not anymore.

“Now that I have hit one, I wouldn’t care if I never see one again.”

Stoney Fork is a village of 500 where the locals greet strangers with a smile and a “Hey, how ya doin'?” Residents wave at every passing car. Odds are it’s someone they know.

Neat rows of homes line Highway 221 through the main part of town, but most houses are sprawled along the mountain slopes or across the valley. People eat and gossip at Teresa’s Market, which doubles as a convenience store and restaurant, and they attend church just down the street.

In 1997, Kentucky released elk on a nearby coal-mining strip. They were supposed to stay there. Teresa Shepherd worried.

“Everyone was hyped up and excited for the elk,” Shepherd said. “I said: ‘Guys, listen. Three years from now you are going to be sick of them.’ I was dreading it.”

Shepherd’s caution became prophecy. Every winter the elk wander along the roads and fields of Stoney Fork, looking for food and, residents say, posing threats.

Retired dentist Jim Corum, who lives near the site of Jones’ crash, cited a newspaper article that reported that more than 100 elk had been killed by car crashes in Kentucky since 2005. The elk prevent him from buying cattle because they keep destroying his fences.

“One of the classics of government programs is unintended consequences,” Corum said.

Corum launched a petition drive to remove elk from around the town, and about 380 people signed. The town has met with Kentucky Fish and Wildlife to discuss ways to thin the herd. Corum said more than 98 percent of the town wants the elk gone.

Residents have received free elk hunting licenses, and some elk have been relocated, but those strategies haven’t made a dent, Corum said. He wants to declare open season on elk.

“Some of us are amazed that the commissioner has that kind of latitude to put animals in that can do this kind of damage with impunity,” Corum said.

A few of the elk Missouri trapped came from the Stoney Fork area. “We are excited to have 50 elk trapped and sent to (Missouri),” Corum said. “Not happy for (Missouri) though.”

Creature comforts

“Peck Ranch Refuge Closed.”

The new sign hung on a metal fence along the road into the conservation area, a road that disappeared into a mix of pine, blooming dogwoods and budding oak.

Beyond that sign lies the new home for Missouri elk. It's a mix of glades, grasslands, forests and open water. Earlier this spring, conservation workers laid tons of gravel to create roads and parking lots, a job made more difficult by frequent rain.

A little farther down the road, an 8-foot fence is surrounded by plywood and tarps. Inside, four large holding pens contain 19 cows and 15 bull elk. Some of the elk trapped in Kentucky escaped; others were released or died from trauma during the 90-day holding period.

Despite the tight deadline and the long hours it took to prepare Peck Ranch, construction manager Mike Smith said his crews never wavered.

“I’ve never been stressed out because I knew what we were capable of,” Smith said.

The forest also is being transformed. On one side of the road that cuts through the restoration zone, the forest floor is choked with dead leaves, fallen branches and twig-like trees. The other side is charred. The leaves are gone, and the trees have been thinned, the result of controlled burns by the Conservation Department. By mid-April, sprouts of green were appearing, a source of food for the elk and a habitat more suitable for roaming. Nearby, plots of clover, alfalfa and other grasses promise an all-the-elk-can-eat buffet. Peck Ranch manager Ryan Houf thinks the variety will keep elk from wandering.

“Our burn units provide peas, steaks, mashed potatoes and ice cream,” Houf said. “The non-burn areas are like eating peas every day.”

“You want a diversity of habitat, and we have that.”

Nearby, residents of Eminence, Winona and Van Buren wonder about the impact. The towns rely on the business from people who come to fish or canoe the Current and Jack’s Fork rivers during summer. Although it’s possible the elk will extend the tourist season into fall, some worry they’ll also pose hazards and hardship.

“We need jobs around here. It’s bad because all the young people leave. (But elk) won’t be a boost,” Gracie Fox, a Winona resident since 1978, said.

Rodney Fisher, 48, who runs Fisher's Bargain Store in Winona, worries about driving. He said elk will make Route H, a hilly two-lane highway that runs through the town and Peck Ranch, more dangerous. And Missouri 60 and 19 are just outside the restoration zone.

“Who’s going to pay to get the vehicle fixed? Or the hospital bill?” Fisher asked. “(The Conservation Department) ought to be responsible if you hit an elk by car.”

Bob Chitwood, 62, of Van Buren, disagrees. He plans to feed any elk that wander onto his property in the winter, when food is scarce.

“I got a farm out here, and it would tickle me to death to see an elk hop over and eat the crops,” Chitwood said. “It will draw more floaters and give them something else to do around here besides float and drink beer.”

Jim Smith, who owns Cross Country Trail Rides in Eminence, is working with the Conservation Department to create elk habitat on his land. Smith’s business brings visitors from across America and around the world for horseback tours of his forests and fields, where wild horses live. Only short, fallen fences separate Peck Ranch from Smith’s property.

Smith remembers the first time he saw elk in Colorado. Five cows were standing by an 8-foot fence. He doubted the elk could clear the obstacle, "yet sure enough, they jump it: one, two, three.”

Smith plans to do a controlled burn with the Conservation Department then replant the landscape to attract elk. He doesn’t know if business will increase if and when the elk come, but he said it can’t hurt. In four years Smith hopes to host tours through the restoration zone in conjunction with an Eminence elk festival.

About 55 miles away in Salem, cattle farmer Bobby Simpson worries. Standing on a section of his 2,800 acres, he surveys some of the 850 head of cattle mooing and grazing his pastures. His face wrinkled with concern before he discussed the elk.

“I know it won’t affect me one year or five years from now, but 20 years from now it will affect me,” Simpson, 55, said. “That’s why I stand up (against) it.”

Simpson testified at both legislative hearings that produced yes votes on Schad's and Munzinger’s bills. He said that the elk are a threat and that he saw very little support for the restoration at town meetings not sponsored by the Conservation Department.

Simpson said he’s wanted to be a cattle farmer since he was 2. His son, Jarrod Simpson, 27, is following in his footsteps, and Bobby Simpson has started taking his infant grandson around the farm. He said he fears the elk will destroy his fences, his alfalfa, his business and his family legacy.

“We may be going against the trend, but we’re trying to build things here.”

Contrasting predictions

In 2002, MU anthropology chairman Lee Lyman looked at prehistoric and historic data on elk in Missouri. The results have him skeptical the Peck Ranch restoration can succeed.

Looking at animal remains and DNA, Lyman and fellow researchers reasoned that elk have never made a home in the counties that include or adjoin Peck Ranch. Instead, most herds were found in the plains of western and northwest Missouri.

“What’s kind of revealing is that the southeastern third of the state doesn’t seem to be the best habitat,” Lyman said. “If elk couldn’t survive there naturally, why do we think they could survive there now?”

Although the Conservation Department has tried to create suitable habitat for elk at Peck Ranch, Lyman said it's possible, despite successful reintroductions in Kentucky and Arkansas, that the elk might leave the ranch to escape sticky, suffocating heat. He rubbed his chin as he pondered the future of elk in the state, then he rattled off a litany of questions and answers.

“What studies have been done to indicate this is a good decision for Missouri? Has an anthropological study been done? … Is tourism going to go up? I kind of doubt it, but maybe. Is there going to be a sufficient elk population to really have a ‘huntable’ population? My guess is no.”

The first 34 elk are in Missouri — 15 of those trapped in Kentucky were lost to death, escape or release — but their impact on the ecosystem and on people won’t be known for a while. As the Conservation Department continues its three-year effort to restore elk, all anyone can be certain of is uncertainty.

Dalbom, though, is excited.

“My opinion is that they’ll blend into the habitat,” he said. “We will know they are there. We will hear them bugle in the fall. We will catch a fleeting glimpse of them in the bottom meadow or heading into the edges of the timber.

“I think a lot of the elk will be in our imagination — the fact that they are here — and I think that has a lot of value. It is part of the wilderness that makes Missouri special.”

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Elliot Ewert May 19, 2011 | 11:27 p.m.

Beautiful article about our efforts to restore the habitat of a beautiful animal. This writer has composed a very thoughtful and informative piece about the effects this will have on all stakeholders in the elk restoration project. I can't wait to visit Peck's Farm myself!

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