Conservation commission approves elk restoration in Missouri

Sunday, October 17, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- For the first time since the Civil War, wild elk will once again roam a portion of southern Missouri.

The Missouri Conservation Commission approved Friday a restoration plan that will see elk released into a sparsely populated 346-square-mile area in portions of Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties. The release could begin as early as the spring.

The conservation commission first began discussing bringing elk back into the state about 10 years ago, but the plan was scrapped amid questions about the management of diseases such as chronic wasting disease.

Recent developments in the management and treatment of the disease, and efforts to provide suitable habitat for the large herbivores led to the commission's renewed interest over the summer.

Elk coming into Missouri will be screened for health problems for 93 days once they are captured in their native states. They will then be quarantined and tested once they arrive in Missouri before being freed into their new habitat.

Once freed, the animals movement and health will be monitored by radio tracking collars each animal will wear and satellite tracking chips that will be injected into each animal.

Original plans called for an initial herd of 150 animals, but Department of Conservation deputy director Tom Draper said recently he would be surprised if more than 50 elk are introduced to Missouri in the first year of the program.

Backers of the restoration of the state's elk herd tout the importance of reintroducing a native species back into Missouri. They also point to economic benefits brought by elk viewing and hunting.

But some landowners in the elk restoration area are not as welcoming. They fear the large animals will roam outside their original territories, causing property damage, spreading disease and creating danger on area roads.

The conservation commission's decision "is very disappointing, and what is most troubling is the message it sends," said Leslie Holloway, director of state, local and governmental affairs for the Missouri Farm Bureau. "Either the commissioners don't believe there is an increased risk caused by elk to motorists ... land owners ... local livestock herds ... or they do believe there is an increased risk and they're willing to take that risk."

Holloway said the reintroduction decision seemed hurried.

"We're baffled by that," Holloway said.

Holloway also said the department's assessment of support for the proposal was overestimated. Holloway said Farm Bureau's studies showed more area landowners opposed elk reintroduction than supported it.

But conservation department spokesman Joe Jerek said the Department on Conservation stands by its assessment.

"The majority of comments we received supported elk restoration in southern Missouri," said Jerek.

In its restoration plan, the department reports 137 people filled out comment cards during local hearings on the restoration plan with 83 percent favoring restoration. In addition, the department received more than 2,300 comments between July 16 and Sept. 30 through the mail, email, Internet and other contacts. The department said 80 percent of these favored elk restoration.

At Friday's conservation commission meeting in Kirksville, eight members of the public addressed the commission in favor of restoration compared to 6 who spoke against.

Jerek said the department is confident that it can manage the elk restoration project without disturbing the local habitat, land owners and livestock herds.

The department "is nationally respected for our expertise in wildlife management and for our successes in native species restoration," said Jerek, pointing to wild turkey and white tailed deer management. "These elk will be limited to a designated restoration zone and subject to careful, science-based research and action as appropriate."

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