Growing meadows for hungry elk

EMINENCE, Mo. — A large bull elk stood stolid on a gravel road as a cow and its calf grazed in a nearby field. The setting sun cast a blaze of reds and oranges softened by dark clouds and slowly gave way to night.

This postcard scene didn’t come from Colorado or Wyoming, but from Missouri, once fully depleted of the tall and majestic creatures, now home to a burgeoning population of reintroduced elk.

Peck Ranch, a Missouri Department of Conservation site in the Ozark Mountains and the reintroduction site, is more than 23,000 acres of oak-pine forests, rocky glades and narrow ridges that reach past 1,000 feet high.

“You have to want to come to Peck Ranch,” said Rochelle Renken, Resource Science Field Chief at the Missouri Department of Conservation. “Its not on the way to anything.”

In 2011, as dozens of elk were gathered in Kentucky and prepared for release at the Peck Ranch site, conservation department employees had already begun clearing out a small portion of trees at the site and began expanding large flat areas.

The tree removal was part of an effort to expand the open meadows, which the elk use for slow, methodical grazing. Barb Keller, a researcher who works for the project, said the elk populations are growing at 10 to 20 percent. As the populations grow, the elk will expand their ranges and demand more grazing territory. The researchers are planting orchard grass, a favorite of the elk, in the meadows.

The conservation department is continuing to expand the Peck Ranch meadows and are preparing for more elk and more sightseeing visitors, who Renken expects will be flocking to Peck Ranch once word spreads of the elk herds. Once the populations surpass 250, the department will begin planning for an elk hunting season, which would likely start with just a small handful of permits.

Supervising editor is Alicia Stice.

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