COLUMBIA — The wait is finally over for the Missouri Department of Conservation — and for the 34 elk that have been living in a Kentucky holding pen for the past three months.
At 6:30 a.m. Thursday, a semi-truck with 34 elk arrived at the 346-square-mile restoration zone in Peck Ranch Conservation Area in south-central Missouri. The elk are the first wild herd in Missouri since the Civil War era, and are part of the conservation department’s three-year plan to bring 150 elk to Missouri and to establish a self-sustaining herd.
Missourian reporter Brian Nordli and photographer Jeff Lautenberger have spent months chronicling the adventures of conservation workers who labored to trap Kentucky elk and bring them to Peck Ranch in Missouri. They also talked to Kentucky and Missouri residents to learn more about the pros and cons of re-establishing the animals here. Check the Missourian next week for a comprehensive report — including photos, graphics and multimedia — exploring one of the biggest projects the conservation department has undertaken.
Conservation department spokesman Joe Jerek said it was an amazing moment to witness the elk released in Missouri.
“It really was an exciting moment in making conservation history, watching the trailer unload the elk,” Jerek said. “It’s hard to put into words.”
It was the culmination of a six-month effort to build pens and trap elk in Pineville, Ky., to test them for illnesses such as chronic wasting disease and bovine tuberculosis and to create a habitat and a temporary holding pen in Missouri.
Missouri had 49 elk trapped in Kentucky by the end of January, but the frigid winter and stress caused 15 elk to die or escape. On April 29, the planned transportation date, one elk test result came back inconclusive for disease, causing a delay. Once the elk had been cleared, flooding in south-central Missouri put the transportation off even further. Jerek, however, said he wasn’t surprised by the delays.
“In a project of this magnitude and complexity, you are going to expect bumps and delays,” Jerek said. “We were happy to have worked through them.”
The elk were transported more than 500 miles from Pineville, Ky., to Peck Ranch in a livestock trailer filled with alfalfa hay. It was a 12-hour trip that began at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, with only one stop for gas and a restroom break. The late timing of the trip was important because it kept the elk cool and minimized the stress of transportation.
Once the elk arrived, they were moved into the large holding pen, where they will spend two weeks adapting to their new environment. It is a process resource scientist Lonnie Hansen calls a “soft-release.”
“This is a technique recommended by our partners in Kentucky, based on their experience,” Hansen said in a news release. “They found that if they brought elk in and released them directly from trailers, the animals bolted from the area.”
There are 28 cows and calves and six young bulls. Jerek said the elk seemed to be adapting well to Missouri, and he doesn’t expect any more casualties.
“I took a peek at some of the animals, and they have already started to eat and graze on the grass,” Jerek said.
Peck Ranch’s refuge area will be closed to the public through July, allowing time for calves to be born and adjust to their surroundings.