COLUMBIA — Thirty-four elk from Kentucky, plus five newborn calves, were released from their three-acre holding pen at Peck Ranch Conservation Area on Wednesday morning.
An elk population is returning to Missouri after being absent for 150 years.
The release was what is called a “soft release,” which began with keeping the elk in the holding pen. On Wednesday, Missouri Department of Conservation staff opened the gates to the holding pens and then opened a section of fencing. This allowed the elk to leave the holding site on their own, said Joe Jerek, spokesman for the Conservation Department.
When the gates were opened, the elk moved to the opposite ends of the four sections of the holding pen, said Mike Kruse, resource science division chief. Department staff remained quiet throughout the process so they didn't agitate the elk, Kruse said.
The area will be closed to the public to allow the elk and new calves to get comfortable with their surroundings with minimal human disturbance. The refuge should be reopened in mid- to late summer, Jerek said.
Research has shown elk are more likely to stay in the same area after being held in a pen with minimal exposure to humans, even staff, Jerek said. When elk become accustomed to their environment and see that resources such as food are available, they are more likely to stay put, department spokeswoman Candice Davis said.
The newborn elk have also been fitted with GPS radio collars that will help researchers, including some at MU, track the herd's movement, health and eating habits.
The collars will also help the Conservation Department track where the elk congregate. That way, the department can tell people where they are most likely to see the elk, Jerek said.
“The prime viewing time will be in the fall,” Jerek said. “The bulls will be bugling and gathering their cows. Plus, the fall foliage will make the drive through that area a pretty amazing experience.”
“It will be the first fall Missourians will be able to hear the elk bugle," Davis said. "It’s very exciting."
The department is finishing plans to bring more elk to Missouri next winter or early spring, Jerek said. Plans call for adding more elk the following year. The additional elk may come from Kentucky — like the first group did — but Jerek said there has been no official decision.
“This first group of 34, with the five newborn calves, is really the nucleus of Missouri's restored elk herd,” Jerek said.
The department's ultimate goal is to have a herd of between 400 and 500 elk. Lonnie Hansen, a resource scientist for the department, said it hopes to achieve that goal in 10 to 15 years.
Hansen said the department will use the GPS radio collars to build population models and predict population growth based on observed survival rates and other factors. Those projections will help determine when hunting might be possible, Hansen said.
Based on observations, conservation agents think 10 of the cows being released are pregnant. If each gives birth, it would bring the total number of wild elk in the area to 49.