Hunters eager as elk make a comeback in Missouri

Friday, November 29, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD — Galena hunter Jerry Burk couldn't believe his luck.

In mid-September, deep in the mountains of northwest Colorado, the biggest bull elk he had ever seen slowly worked its way to a small stream only 100 yards from where Burk stood ready with his compound bow.

Bugle calls from Burk's nephew, Daniel Scobee, sparked a bit of interest, but the bull declined to move until Daniel took a stick and raked it against a tree. It mimicked the sound of another bull elk thrashing the branches, a challenge Burk's elk could not ignore.

"Finally that bull had had enough, and he bugled really loud, louder than I've ever heard an elk bugle," Burk recalled. "He was upset. He's expecting another bull and is mad and coming in to fight."

Forty yards out, Burk drew back and fired a broadhead.

"I couldn't tell at first where I hit him," he said. "We waited a bit and thought we heard him go down, but we didn't want to take the chance of spooking him and making him run. If he's well-hit and you don't chase him, most likely he'll just lay down and die."

With daylight fading, they returned to their hunting camp with plans to find the elk at daybreak. They didn't have to search long.

"He didn't even go 100 yards," Burk said. "When we got to him, it was the biggest bull I'd ever seen."

Burk estimated its weight at about 1,000 pounds, with antlers nearly as long as Burk was tall. They butchered the animal in place and packed out close to 400 pounds of meat, which now is in Burk's freezer.

There's not much that could have made this hunt any better. Well, there is one thing.

What if he could bypass the 1,980-mile round trip, $585 Colorado elk tag and $1,500 overall expense by hunting elk in Missouri?

"Oh, yeah, I definitely would like that," Burk said. "I do like the mountains and scenery in Colorado, but I sure would rather hunt one here in Missouri."

In a couple of years he just might get that chance.

The last wild elk was shot in Missouri's Bootheel region in the late 1890s, extinguishing a species that had roamed the forests and glades of Missouri for thousands of years. But in May 2011, Missouri conservation officials brought a herd of 35 wild elk from Kentucky and released them on the 36-square-mile Peck Ranch Conservation Area, 2.5 hours east of Springfield in Carter and Shannon counties.

In 2012 and 2013, two more groups of Kentucky elk were brought to Peck Ranch, and so far the results have been exactly what elk program manager David Hasenbeck hoped for.

"We've got 107 elk on the property right now, and that first year's group produced six or seven calves," Hasenbeck said. "We've now got Missouri-born elk on the ground."

Reintroducing elk to Missouri is both experiment and science. The Kentucky elk were outfitted with tracking collars that let Conservation Department and MU researchers track their movements. Researchers regularly collect and analyze elk dung to see what the animals are eating and how well they're adapting to their habitat.

To help ensure success, numerous food plots consisting of clover, grains and native grasses were sown in open areas near forested hills, benefiting the elk as well as whitetail deer and other grass-foraging species. Areas of Peck Ranch forest have been thinned to restore the more open woodland environment that existed in the 1800s, when wildfires were a natural part of the environment.

"What we're seeing is that the elk are adapting very well here," Hasenbeck said. "About a third of what they're eating is from the forest — acorns, leaves from small trees. The rest is native grass and grazing from the food plots. It's important that they feel at ease here. They are not ranging far; they're not making long-distance moves. They're living basically where we released them."

That's important for an animal that can grow to 800 pounds or more and does not mix well with highway traffic or farmer's fields. Hasenbeck said the elk are not fenced and likely will stay on the Peck Ranch Conservation Area as long food, water and solitude exist.

In fact, Peck Ranch Conservation Area was chosen because of its relative isolation from highways and humans. Reaching the headquarters entails about a six-mile drive on gravel roads.

The Missouri elk project closely follows the successful elk reintroduction that took place in Arkansas in 1981 and 1985. Wild elk now roam the Buffalo River corridor and have become a tourist attraction, especially during the fall rut, when testosterone-fueled bull elks sound their distinctive bugle call.

The town of Jasper, Ark., has capitalized on the nearby herds of elk with an annual Buffalo River Elk Festival that typically draws thousands to the two-day event in June. Highlighting the festival: A championship elk-calling contest and Miss Buffalo River Elk Fest Pageant.

But one of the key draws is the chance to win one of three elk-hunting permits and learn who will be selected for one of the 25 other coveted elk-hunting permits that are announced during the festival.

It's a formula that Hasenbeck said might also work in Missouri.

"We've already had some interest from some of the surrounding towns for some kind of festival," he said. "Right now, we're seeing the elk as a significant tourism draw to this region. At Peck Ranch we've got gravel roads that offer an easy-drive auto tour in the back country that takes people by most of the best viewing spots."

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