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Hundreds attend Missouri public meetings on elk restoration

From the Missouri Department of Conservation

-- About 300 people attended public meetings Aug. 23, 24 and 26 to learn about proposed plans for elk restoration plans in the southern Missouri.

During the meetings, Conservation staff focused on various aspects of the proposed elk restoration, as well as animal health testing, the restoration zone, herd and habitat management and possible economic benefits from elk hunting and related tourism. In 2000 the Department of Conservation suspended elk restoration plans because of the emerging issue of chronic wasting disease (CWD) and habitat concerns.  
 
While the Conservation Commission has yet to approve the proposed restoration plan, the draft calls for extensive testing of all imported elk for various diseases. Following this, the proposed plan calls for a limited release of 80 to 150 cow and bull elk in early 2011 into a 365-square-mile restoration zone around the Peck Ranch Conservation Area in Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties. According to MDC research, this area has suitable habitat, consists mostly of public lands, has limited roads running through it and has limited agriculture activity.
 
To prevent possible disease transmission from imported elk to domestic livestock and other wildlife, MDC is working with the Missouri Department of Agriculture and state veterinarian Dr. Taylor Woods.
 
The agencies have developed extensive animal-health testing protocols for imported free-ranging elk that have been proven in other states and meet or exceed required health testing protocols for wildlife or livestock, according to Dr. Woods.
 
If the Conservation Commission proceeds with plans to restore elk, the protocols call for all imported elk to be tested for nine diseases: brucellosis, CWD, bovine tuberculosis, anaplasmosis, bovine viral diarrhea, blue tongue, epizootic hemorrhagic disease, Johne's disease and vesicular stomatitis. All elk must originate from a CWD-free state and test negative for CWD, brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis.
 
The protocols also state all imported elk would be tested in their state of origin as well as in Missouri before release. Elk would also be treated for internal and external parasites in their state of origin before being brought into Missouri. Any elk brought into Missouri would be held in a fenced area in the restoration zone prior to release.
 
The protocols require MDC to collect health data from the state of origin several months prior to trapping elk for transportation to Missouri. Each shipment of elk into Missouri would be followed by a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection and approved by an accredited veterinarian. All imported elk that die in Missouri would be examined for cause of death.
 
All elk would be fitted with microchips and radio collars to help monitor their health, movements and location.  
 
MDC biologist Lonnie Hansen said elk-vehicle collisions occur in states where elk have been restored, but such accidents have been infrequent. Hansen is one of several MDC biologists developing the current proposed restoration plan and was instrumental in developing the 2000 feasibility study.
 
"Arkansas has approximately 500 elk in an area covering about 500 square miles and averages one or two elk-vehicle accident per year," said Hansen. "Kentucky has approximately 10,000 elk in an area covering about 6,400 square miles throughout 16 counties and averages about 10-elk-vehicle accidents per year."
 
He added that the 365-square-mile zone around Peck Ranch Conservation Area contains 77 miles of blacktop highway inside the restoration zone.
Hansen said differences between elk and deer behavior during the rut make elk less prone to vehicle collisions.
 
"Elk do not frequent and cross roads to the same extent as deer," he explained. "Elk are harem breeders where they win and defend a group of cows in an established area. They do not go through the chase phase of courtship like whitetails, which causes bucks and does to cross roadways."
 
Missouri's plan also deals with elk that wander where they are not welcome, and is modeled after those of other states where elk have been introduced.
 
"Elk may move from areas where we want them onto private land where they are not wanted," said Hansen. "We are talking with private landowners in and around the restoration zone and listening to their concerns. The key to help prevent problems is to provide excellent elk habitat and keep them on public property as much as possible."
 
The plan includes having trained staff who would quickly respond to complaints about unwelcome elk. Tactics for dealing with unwelcome elk could include harassing them with shell crackers and other noise-making methods to prompt them to leave private land and not return. Staff could also sedate and relocate nuisance elk. As a last resort, staff could harvest nuisance elk and donate the meat to food pantries.
 
Hansen noted that Arkansas has recorded about two complaints of pasture damage and one or two complaints of fence damage per year over the past 20 years.  The MDC is also developing cost-share incentives for private landowners in the area to help them manage pastures for both improved livestock grazing and elk habitat. Potential funding support may come from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and/or the Missouri Conservation Heritage Foundation.
 
The MDC's elk restoration plan will include herd-management guidelines, with hunting in the future as the primary management tool to maintain an appropriate population, with a goal to grow and maintain a herd that doesn't exceed the supporting habitat.
 
Elk restoration in other states has provided economic benefits in states such as Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Arkansas where they have learned elk quickly became a key tourist attraction, considerable public interest and a subsequent boost to tourism and hunting.
 
The majority of written comments received at the public meetings were in favor of the elk restoration efforts.
 
In addition to written comments received at the public meetings, the MDC is seeking comments through its website at www.mdc.mo.gov/contact-us under Elk Restoration Comments  or mailed to Missouri Department of Conservation, Director's Office, PO Box 180, Jefferson City MO 65102-0180.
 
MDC staff will include results of public comments in a presentation of the proposed elk restoration plan to the Conservation Commission Oct. 15 in Kirksville.

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