A bull elk walks through a clearing

A bull elk walks through a clearing Oct. 30 at the Peck Ranch Conservation Center in southern Missouri. The herd at Peck Ranch was relocated from Kentucky in 2011.

COLUMBIA — The bugle of a bull elk is an otherworldly sound.

But moments before it rings out, I am thinking about my pants. I should have worn thicker pants. It's sunrise at the Peck Ranch Conservation Area, deep in the Missouri Ozarks, and it's freezing.

I can see elk gathered in the clearing in front of me, but right now it's silent. I can see my breath. I don't know why I'm not wearing my gloves. Where are my gloves?

Then a bull elk opens its mouth, pulls back its lips and exposes its teeth. The tongue stays where it is. The bull rushes air from its lungs, sending a high-pitched clarinet call slicing through the air.

I stop thinking about my pants.

Reintroduction

Male elk bugle in the fall in an attempt to lure in mates. Their calls rang out in Missouri for a long time. Lewis and Clark could hear them. The architects of the Missouri Compromise could have heard them. But for the past 150 years, that sound has been absent from the state; over-hunting and habitat loss wiped elk out of Missouri in the 19th century.

You can hear elk bugle again because of people like Barbara Keller.

Keller is a resource scientist and elk biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. She works at the department's Columbia office, her cubicle near a mounted bison head that's bigger than my car.

Starting in 2011, the department began capturing and bringing over elk from Kentucky, a state that launched a wildly successful elk reintroduction program a few years earlier.

Missouri's herd remains small. Some elk have been born here, though, including a pair of twins in July.

Keller, with a few moments of typing, conjures a sea of green dots spread out over her computer screen. They represent the movement of about 120 to 130 elk now roaming across a 350-square-mile "elk zone" that includes parts of Reynolds, Shannon and Carter counties.

There are no fences keeping them there. If an elk wanted, it could stray from the herd and venture across Missouri and beyond. The majority have chosen to stay within Peck Ranch's 36 square miles. Less than 10 percent of the herd tends to wander outside the zone.

Keller knows this because of the tracking collars they've placed on many of the animals. The collars have a dual global positioning system and a high frequency device that allows a team of MU researchers to track each animal even after the GPS wears out. If an elk outgrows its collar, Keller can remotely signal it to break off.

Keller asks if I'd like to see some antlers recently taken off a dead bull. I do. I want to study them. I've daydreamed about sneaking up behind an elk in the wild and attaching my GoPro camera to its antlers. The footage is going to make me famous.

She pulls the antlers out of a storage closet, still attached to the top of the dead elk's bloody skull. This elk fought another bull and lost. Its opponent knocked him to the ground and kicked him in the neck, severing his jugular and carotid artery.

I revise my GoPro plans.

Prime habitat

The best place to see elk in Missouri is Peck Ranch, where anyone can take a free self-guided driving tour. A small wooden sign off Highway 60 directs you to a long, unpaved road. I'm told to show up before sunrise.

I drive up with Adam Vogler, a photographer whose camera lens is larger than my torso. I'll hide behind the lens if we encounter an angry elk.

We get lucky. When we arrive, several conservation staff are preparing to take a group from the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation on a back-trail tour. They give us the thumbs up to tag along.

The foundation was an early supporter of the elk program. Chris Vitello, the foundation's executive director, said in an email that the $35,000 grant they gave back in 2011 was partially for monitoring the elk.

The elk program overall has cost far more than $1 million, though exact costs are difficult to determine. Work that benefits elk can also benefit other wildlife, such as white-tailed deer.

Peck Ranch was selected as the release point for the elk brought in from Kentucky in part because a good habitat for the deer already existed. Elk like a lot of the same food: alfalfa, clover and rye. Prime habitat is largely why most elk have stayed around Peck. It helps that there are few roads or farms in the area.

Some of the elk zone includes private land, though. Aaron Jeffries, who became the department's deputy director a few days after we talked, said about 70 landowners have worked with the department to create habitat on their property.

One of those landowners, Jim Smith, has supported the program from the beginning. Smith said the department helped pay for the habitat on his property, and while he hasn't seen any elk yet, he looks forward to sightings as the herd grows.

"Everybody is not in favor of the elk, but you can't ever get everybody," Smith said. "Between the wild horses and the elk, it should give a little extra tourism to the town business that we'd probably never have seen otherwise."

High calf mortality

Brainworm might be part of the reason Smith has yet to see elk on his land. The parasite lives in deer but is mostly harmless. But through a horrifying process involving larvae, poop and snails, the worm wreaks havoc inside an elk.

Keller notes that brainworm poses no threat to people. And none of the elk has tested positive for chronic wasting disease, another potential threat. Brainworm, however, has contributed to a slow-growing population with high calf mortality: About half the elk born in Missouri, including the 27 or so born this year, have died.

David Hasenbeck, the elk program manager, isn't panicking. Hasenbeck, who calls himself a "crusty old biologist," said the calf mortality rates are similar to losses regularly seen in Missouri's deer herd.

Keller added that even though a 2012 drought killed several of the elk imported from Kentucky that year, none of the elk that were transplanted in 2011 died. That suggests they had already adapted to the climate.

She also noted that elk in Kentucky, Arkansas and other states continue to flourish in spite of brainworm. Kentucky has more than 10,000 elk, which is one reason it agreed to let Missouri have more than 100 of them.

Other deaths have been more random. Smith recalled one elk that was frightened by traffic and broke its neck on a concrete culvert. Keller said she believed one elk had been hit and killed by a vehicle, but that was never reported.

If I ever hit an elk, I'm pretty sure I'm going to report it. I'm also sure I'd need to buy new pair of pants.

Future for hunting

In several years, the department hopes to have the opposite problem: an expanding population that needs to be culled.

Dylan Shepherd, a local hunter skeptical about the introduction of elk, brightened considerably over the prospect of buying hunting tags. Killing an elk wouldn't just be for the trophy. Elk can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds, which can translate to hundreds of pounds of meat.

"One elk would feed maybe a family all year," Eminence Alderman Robert McQuerry said.

In the meantime, the department's tracking collars help Keller, Hasenbeck and others see where the elk roam. That, in turn, helps them know where to create more habitat in hopes of directing elk away from cars and the people driving them.

"Knock wood, we've been very blessed," Hasenbeck said. "We haven't had any major problems. Nor have we had any major complaints."

Instead, they hear stories like the one Smith told me.

Smith was driving through Peck Ranch several months ago when his grandson yelled out from the passenger seat: "Whoa! Back up here!"

Smith stopped the car, and they got out. A newborn elk was lying in a ditch.

The calf couldn't walk yet, which meant it was fresh out of the oven. Calves can normally walk 20 minutes after birth.

Smith and his grandson got back in the car to alert the conservation department. If they were fast enough, perhaps someone could bring over a tracking collar. It took them a while to find cell signal. Smith called Peck headquarters. An official rushed over.

But by the time they arrived, the calf was gone.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

  • Blake reported and edited for the Columbia Missourian from 2015 to 2017. Contact him at blake.nelson@mail.missouri.edu / 573-882-5720

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