Missouri's History With the Elk
There’s a sound that echoes over the treetops in Arkansas’ Buffalo National River park in early fall. It’s haunting, and it’s ancient, and it went quiet for more than 100 years before returning in the early 1980s—a mere blip in the grand scheme of things. Late September and early October is the rutting season for elk (Cervus elaphus), and their call is frequent, day and night.
“It starts off low and peaks out with a real high-pitched squeal,” said Cory Gray, elk program leader for the state of Arkansas. “It’s the bull’s way of keeping his harem together and letting the other bulls know he’s around.”
Northern Arkansas is home to roughly 400 North American elk, a species once found throughout the Midwest but now primarily in the Rocky Mountains and western states. Arkansas first introduced around 100 elk in the early 1980s and confined the population to the Buffalo National River area. Since then, they’ve kept the head count under 500 through management practices that include issuing a limited number of hunting permits each summer. The elk’s numbers aren’t as many as they once were, but they make their presence known in early fall as males gather their harems and compete for dominance.
“They’ll clash antlers together and start pushing each other back and forth to see who is the strongest,” Gray said. “Bulls will lose a lot of weight this time of year as they try to maintain their harem. It’s very energy consuming.”
The elk attract a lot of visitors in Arkansas, particularly in the summer when hunting tags are sold, and in the fall when the mating pageantry is on display.
“We have people come from all over to see our elk,” Gray said.
Officials in Missouri hope to see similar benefits. On Oct. 15, the Missouri Conservation Commission approved a plan to bring as many as 150 elk to the state within the year. Several other states have had success with similar efforts, and officials here are learning how to manage a successful program. Conservation measures such as bringing back elk pay by both enriching our economy and our quality of life.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has been weighing the possibility since 2000, focusing on roughly 350 square miles of mostly public land in the southeastern part of the state. The original study raised concerns about available habitat and the possibility that elk could carry