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Return Of The Elk


mic

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I just read in the June Missouri Conservationist that the MDC has brought in their first batch of wild Elk from the Smoky Mountains. They will be released in a couple of weeks in the Peck Ranch Conservation Area. I realize it may never happen, but the thought of throwing a line in the fall and hear an Elk bugling in the background is just to cool. I would fish a stream just for that. MDC's primary control mechanism will be hunting. I only hunt small game, but I'm sure some of you deer hunters would like to bring down a big bull elk. I am by no means a tree hugger, but to me...this is a cool event and a good day for MO outdoors.

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Deer hunters? Maybe in MO, but certainly not down here in AR. The only deer hunting around here is on the highways.

There's a fine line between fishing and sitting there looking stupid.

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I've been sorta conflicted about the whole elk restoration project. While it'll be nice to have elk in the state, we're still coming out of a recession, license sales are still down, and the department's been laying off a fair number of people. To me elk reintroduction just doesn't seem that urgent- the department could do it in a couple years, when they're in a better financial position.

There's a lot of species extirpated from the state which could be reintroduced cheaper and with less political disruption than elk (ravens come immediately to mind). MDC has been trying to reintroduce a few other species- walleye in the Ozarks, ruffed grouse along the Missouri River- both without much success, and apparently little or no subsequent research into why those reintroductions aren't paying off. And there are plenty of critters in the state- mussel species, hellbenders and other herps, crayfishes, plants, bats- that are much more vulnerable to global extinction than elk. To me those species should take precedence. I'm not sure how the elk project was funded, but if you're moving funding from species which genuinely need protection to a species which you just get the warm fuzzies seeing, I take issue with that.

The recent Conservationist article where the Commissioner's shedding a tear because he's making history the minute he opens the pen gate I think is highly indicative of the Department's motives- whatever ecosystem benefits are created by reintroducing elk are tangential. In the end, it's just a good story, and something some Commissioner or biologist gets a really nice plaque for.

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In the end, it's just a good story, and something some Commissioner or biologist gets a really nice plaque for.

I disagree pretty strongly with that. I do agree that some of the motivation of the MDC was to reintroduce a species that would give them a lot of good press, but I also believe that having elk in that area will make that already beautiful and wild country even more special, and a little bit closer to the way it was before we messed things up. I don't care what the motivations of the MDC are-I am incredibly happy that elk have been reintroduced down there.

It's much more than a good story. It is an iconic native species that is being reintroduced to a little bit of it's former habitat. That's something that I think is definitely worth getting excited about. It's a small step, yes, but a step in the right direction. Would you have said the same thing when the Missouri Department of Conservation reintroduced deer and turkey? That took a lot of money and there would have been many easier species to reintroduce.

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I disagree pretty strongly with that. I do agree that some of the motivation of the MDC was to reintroduce a species that would give them a lot of good press, but I also believe that having elk in that area will make that already beautiful and wild country even more special, and a little bit closer to the way it was before we messed things up. I don't care what the motivations of the MDC are-I am incredibly happy that elk have been reintroduced down there.

It's much more than a good story. It is an iconic native species that is being reintroduced to a little bit of it's former habitat. That's something that I think is definitely worth getting excited about. It's a small step, yes, but a step in the right direction. Would you have said the same thing when the Missouri Department of Conservation reintroduced deer and turkey? That took a lot of money and there would have been many easier species to reintroduce.

I'm not against species reintroductions OTF, be they elk or deer or turkey. To me conservation of a globally secure species like elk shouldn't supersede those organisms which are facing genuine population declines and the potential for extinction. There's plenty of critters out there in the state which are worse off globally than elk- many of which exist here and nowhere else in the world. To me those species are more of an integral part of our state's natural history and diversity than a wide-ranging organism like elk, although that's just my opinion.

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I'm not against species reintroductions OTF, be they elk or deer or turkey. To me conservation of a globally secure species like elk shouldn't supersede those organisms which are facing genuine population declines and the potential for extinction. There's plenty of critters out there in the state which are worse off globally than elk- many of which exist here and nowhere else in the world. To me those species are more of an integral part of our state's natural history and diversity than a wide-ranging organism like elk, although that's just my opinion.

I do see your point, and I think it is an admirable sentiment that seemingly small and insignificant species shouldn't take a back seat to an iconic species like elk, especially the ones that are in serious danger of extinction. And in that way I guess it is not hard to say that the MDC didn't get their priorities straight on this one. But it is worth pointing out that the funding from this didn't come just from the MDC-I know that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation among other organizations footed a large percentage of the bill. I don't have exact numbers on the percentage that the MDC actually paid for, although I'm sure that's available somewhere and if I can find that I will post it.

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I'm not typically so cynical of MDC's actions, but to me it just seems the elk reintroduction doesn't add up. $400,000 is an awful lot to devote to any species in a given year, particularly one which isn't even in jeopardy. And while it's true many NGO's are helping pick up that tab, they're only paying for reintroduction- not for the salaries of full time elk biologists or hourly seasonal employees, not for yearly disease testing of the state's elk herd, not for much of the manpower or habitat management that will be required to maintain that herd's health.

There are a few other things about it that rub me the wrong way- apparently the elk habitat in southern Missouri is so excellent MDC will be providing food plots to the elk. To me it's disingenuous- if the habitat is so well suited for elk, and if the ecosystem has been managed to mimic a pre-settlement landscape in order to reintroduce elk, MDC shouldn't need to supplementally feed the elk. Similarly, MDC is developing a cost-share program with adjacent landowners, so that they may put out food plots for elk, too. It sorta bothers me, the idea that public funds could be used to concentrate a public resource (elk), on lands where the public has no right to view or pursue them. And if the whole premise of reintroducing elk is to restore some semblance of the Ozarks' pre-settlement ecosystem, the idea of cultivating food plots seems antithetical to their stated objectives- like MDC paving the way to otter reintroduction by giving landowners cash to stock ponds and streams with common carp. What's more, some of the information in the plan seems awfully flimsy- I understand that no one can know with certainty how the elk will fare, but claiming that they won't wander as far as rocky mountain elk just because the PR guy from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation says so seems like bad science to me.

In the end I really do believe MDC does a great job, I just take issue with a few of their methods and motives. I'm not upset with the premise of what they're doing, just the methods they're using to do it. I too look forward to the day I can hear elk bugling in the Ozarks, I just don't want that day to come at the expense of the rest of the region's diversity.

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Seems to me that there are ample examples of elk being reintroduced into "eastern" type habitat and how they fare to make expectations of how they'll do in Missouri reasonably accurate. But even with the amount of wild, wooded land in the area where they have been reintroduced, you can't fool yourself that it resembles the pre-settlement Ozarks. From all accounts, much of pre-settlement Ozarks consisted of big, widely-spaced trees (either oak/hickory or shortleaf pine) with a lot of grass growing under them, maintained by fires both natural and set by the native Americans. Which sounds like perfect elk habitat to me. But once that original timber was cut, it regrew into the Ozarks we see today with very thick timber shading out the ground beneath. Elk are more grazers than browsers, unlike deer, so they don't do well in thick timber without open grassy areas. Hence the necessity for food plots. Hence also the likelihood that the elk will gravitate toward any open hayfields in the area, as they appear to do down on the Buffalo.

While I love the idea of trying to re-establish the original Ozark landscape and fauna in some area like this, it's a lot more difficult than it would seem to be. I've watched the state park people attempt to use fire to recreate the original savannah habitat in Hawn State Park and others, but it simply isn't working well, because the trees are too thick. The native grasses that they want to grow back beneath the trees quickly get shaded out and the shade-loving shrubs and small trees grow right back. Even if you clear some of the trees, it's still tough. I decided to try to make a savannah on a west-facing hillside on our land. I had the basic ingredients...widely-spaced big white oaks. I figured I could just clear all the brush and small trees growing between them and it would be good. Nope, the brush and small trees were simply quicker to grow back than the pitiful remnants of the savannah plants that were there. So I tried fire, but the problem there was either getting the fire hot enough to kill the brush, or if you got it hot enough, containing it so it didn't spread to my neighbors' land. I've pretty much given up on the idea at this point.

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There are a few other things about it that rub me the wrong way- apparently the elk habitat in southern Missouri is so excellent MDC will be providing food plots to the elk. To me it's disingenuous- if the habitat is so well suited for elk, and if the ecosystem has been managed to mimic a pre-settlement landscape in order to reintroduce elk, MDC shouldn't need to supplementally feed the elk.

I'm not sure if you are familiar with Peck Ranch, but there are already many food plots planted throughout the entire area for deer, turkey, and other wildlife. There have been for years, long before the MDC planned to reintroduce elk. So it's not like they are going to be planting a whole bunch of new plots. They are already there, and yes, that is probably part of the reason that the MDC is putting the elk in the Peck Ranch area. It may seem a little artificial but it is still working in the direction of reintroducing a native species.

I realize that it is impossible to restore even this small corner of the Ozarks to what is was in pre-settlement days. But in the end, I do believe that it is the duty of the Missouri Department of Conservation to bring the ecosystem as close to where it was presettlement as possible-given all of the limitations of modern society. This is one opportunity to bring us a little closer to that in one beautiful, remote, and very special part of the state.

The only thing that makes me conflicted at all about this is your point that the MDC could have been using the same resources to protect species in danger of extinction. It's hard to argue that they shouldn't have spent that money and effort on something more globally vulnerable. I'm kind of ashamed to say that never even crossed my mind until you pointed it out. It is just human nature to look past seemingly insignificant species in favor of a iconic species, something that even well meaning, conservationist types can easily fall into. How come so many people will fight to protect trout and smallmouth bass but not Niangua Darters? For the same reason that some people will fight for Elk reintroduction and not care much about hellbenders. As happy as I am about elk reintroduction that reality is pretty sad, and it is a line of thinking that we are going to regret long term. Who are we to say what species we can just do without?

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