EMINENCE — At the Peck Ranch Conservation Area in southeast Missouri, elk are celebrities.
Now they will have their paparazzi.
Wildlife biologist Ryan Houf provided theses suggestions for visitors to Peck Ranch:
- Choose a vehicle with four-wheel drive.
- Bring bug spray, binoculars, a camera and water.
- Have access to the Peck Ranch field office number: 573-323-4249
- If there is no answer at the field office, contact the Carter County or Shannon County sheriff's departments in an emergency.
- The refuge is occasionally closed for hunting trips and weather-related events, particularly flooding. For information, check with the Missouri Department of Conservation.
- Pets should be leashed or confined.
- Enticing and disturbing the wildlife in any manner is prohibited.
An 11-mile loop within the conservation area was opened to the public last week for elk and wildlife viewing.
The route starts at Peck Ranch headquarters. Visitors can drive through a portion of the refuge where a herd of wild elk have been relocated.
These animals, once native to Missouri, are part of a restoration project that brought 34 elk from Kentucky in May.
The public will be allowed to stop and photograph the herd, including five new calves, as well as look for wild turkeys, white-tail deer, lizards, rabbits and native birds.
“This is just a first step to see how the public responds," said Ryan Houf, wildlife biologist and area manager at Peck Ranch.
How the elk respond and wildlife health are still the first priority, he said.
It takes about four hours to get to the area from Columbia. Driving the loop at a leisurely pace of 10 mph, on average, takes about 45 minutes.
The loop follows parts of roads 1, 10 and 11 in the refuge. Small yellow fences and signs point visitors easily in the right direction. Signs are also posted to note various food plots for the elk around the loop.
The route starts peacefully, crossing flat fields with colorful vegetation on both sides. It eventually changes direction and terrain, following roads over rocky, nerve-wracking hills.
Houf said visitors should be aware that the route can be rough, gravelly and steep. He suggested driving a larger vehicle with four-wheel-drive.
Visitors should also be mindful of ticks, gnats and other bugs, Houf said. And cell-phone reception is spotty, so it should not be depended on for help.
For all of the buzz surrounding the elk, they remain elusive creatures to spot.
A glimpse proves to be more complicated than expected, but that makes a sighting all the more rewarding.
The problem is that the elk have been roaming freely around 36 square miles, or 23,000 acres — and that is just 1/10th of the total restoration zone.
This makes the prospect of happening upon elk within the 11-mile loop — while not impossible — certainly seem daunting.
On Monday, the intense summer heat made matters worse on a drive through the conservation area. High temperatures mean elk are not active during the day.
“I mean, if I weighed 500 pounds, I wouldn’t move, either,” Houf explained, laughing.
Because of the heat, the best shot a visitor had to see elk was either at sunrise or sunset, when it is coolest and the elk start to wander.
Peck Ranch officials still aren’t sure of the patterns or traveling habits of the animals, so they are unable to offer much direction to viewers yet.
“Over time, we’ll know how the elk utilize this area better,” Houf said. “It’s a learning process of where they’re going to be.”
Allowing visitors to get acquainted with the elk is an essential part of managing the interaction between the wildlife and the public. It’s important to keep the public involved in management of the state’s wildlife, Houf said.
“We are still providing refuge and habitat for them (the elk) but also providing public viewing at the same time,” he said.
Elk are enthralling not only because of their size, but also because of their social habits. Houf described them as vocal animals, with a communicative social hierarchy.
He said he expects fall to be the peak viewing season. Not only will the weather be more accommodating, but elk will also start to rut.
Bulls are famous for the "bugling" calls they make to cows during the rut. The visitor experience will be enhanced with the opportunity to hear the loud calls in the cooler autumn weather.
Until then, the elk can be more aloof and elusive.
On Monday, after nearly 3 1/2 hours of driving the loop and spotting 14 deer and other wildlife, finally seeing an elk was beginning to feel like a pipe dream.
At about 8:20 p.m., patience finally paid off. A bull and a cow were calmly, gracefully standing in one of the food plots where the loop changes directions from Route 1 to 11.
At first, the bull's tan color looked like another boulder or tree root. But then the darker cow raised her head, and her eyes reflected bright pinpoints of light that gave her away.
Almost lazily, they acknowledged the intrusion. As they returned to their grazing, it seemed as if they were giving permission to join them.
After several long minutes, they decided they had been courteous long enough and regally turned to plod back into the tree line.
The encounter was not earth-shattering. It was not life-changing.
But it was worth all of the winding roads and bugs to see how effortlessly these creatures have reclaimed our Missouri forests.