A witness to conservation history

Monday, May 21, 2012
I had the privilege of watching as a newborn elk calf was given an ear tag and collar. (Missouri Department of Conservation photo by AJ Hendershott)

My Saturday started with a phone call from my supervisor's supervisor a few minutes after 5 a.m. He called to inform me the stock trailer with the elk was early, and we needed to be in the hotel parking lot within 15 minutes. Sleeping in was no longer an option. My groggy mind had no concept of the memories about to be made.

I zipped through my morning routine and was ready to go at the agreed upon time. I worked on getting some caffeine in my system as my coworker drove the 45-minute drive to Peck Ranch Conservation Area. Last year a three-acre pen site was erected on Peck Ranch to house the elk for a short while so they could acclimate to their new surroundings. It was successfully used to bring over thirty elk from Kentucky to Missouri and we were about to fill the pen again.

Dawn gave way to early morning as the semi with the cattle trailer made its way down the gravel road to the pen site. I could only imagine what staff were thinking because we were all silent or speaking softly so as not to distress the elk. This was our second installment of elk restoration history in the stock trailer.

The first elk came off the truck and sprinted down the plywood maze that directed them to the appropriate pen section. Elk were divided up into different pen sections with ample green browse, shade and water. Temporary ply wood walls were used to direct them to their open gate.

That's where I stood, behind a plywood wall held by my coworkers. Small rectangular holes were cut so we could safely see the elk as they passed by. This was a perfect place for my camera lens. I was strategically placed and pleased to see the elk sprint down the path.

The first cows raced through sporting tracking collars and ear tags. A small portion of their back had been shaved for disease testing. These elk passed many health tests just to get here. I clicked away on the camera with each hoof beat and in the blur of the moments I noticed they all looked really healthy. Shiny coats and good body condition told me they were well cared for in Kentucky.

Next I got to witness the bulls. I had never seen an elk in velvet. That first image was impressive. The rounded ends seemed shiny with the velvet covering and the shapes varied among bulls. I could have soaked up these sights for hours more if allowed. But the elk marched on.

The rest of the adult elk were ushered into their respective pens as I clicked away with my camera shutter. But my best memory was yet to come. I had the privilege of watching as a newborn elk calf was given an ear tag and collar. He was born in Kentucky and transported here in a large, wire pet carrier with a soft straw bed. No worse for the wear, he was given his monitoring equipment and complained little at all. I remember thinking "these animals are resilient". The calf behaved as a child being given its first bath in the sink.

I am not a soft hearted man, but I have to say the young elk was exceptionally cute. I could only imagine what its mother must think.

Following all of this, the calf was carried to the pen where he would reside with his mother for several weeks. He made distinctive bleats that were the first elk noises I had ever heard. How fitting that my first elk sounds were from elk that will help develop Missouri's new elk herd! The sounds were surprisingly endearing.

I walked back from photographing the little fella's subsequent release with this fresh memory. The man who called me at 5 a.m. with my 15 minute departure warning came along side me and said, "this experience makes everything worth it doesn't it?" I could not have agreed with him more.

I drove home later that day contemplating what I had witnessed. I saw and heard things that were indeed a privilege due to my job duties. I planned to share my pictures and story so others could vicariously enjoy the experience. However, I knew beyond all certainty that other Missourians would have similar opportunities to witness the sights and sounds of elk on their own terms, thanks in part to this newest addition of the elk herd. These elk are part of the Missouri landscape now. I hope by sharing my experiences others will be inspired to pursue their own Missouri elk memories.

Missouri's second elk cohort arrived at the Peck Ranch CA holding facility at 6:30 a.m. Saturday, May 19. This year's gang included 22 cows, 18 of which are pregnant. For more information on Missouri's elk restoration go to www.mdc.mo.gov.

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