Elk efforts likely to be put on hold

Elk efforts likely to be put on hold

June 22, 2001 The Associated Press

Fears of elk-borne disease may accomplish what wary state lawmakers could not - prevent the animals' return to Missouri.

At its monthly meeting June 29, the Missouri Conservation Department will consider a recommendation that it suspend efforts to reintroduce wild elk to the state.

Staff of the Missouri Conservation Department made the recommendation citing concern over chronic wasting disease, or CWD, a variant of mad cow disease that infects deer and elk.

No instances of CWD have been found in Missouri deer, and the Conservation Department hopes the state herd will remain CWD-free. The disease was first detected 20 years ago in wild elk in Colorado, and about 100 cases have been reported in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma and South Dakota, according to the department.

"This is the most responsible course of action at this time to help prevent spread of a disease we know little about," Conservation Department Director Jerry Conley said in a news release issued Thursday.

The state Department of Agriculture will present information supporting suspension of the elk reintroduction effort at the June 29 meeting, to be held in St. Joseph.

Some state legislators, alarmed at the possibility of elk colliding with vehicles, damaging crops or infecting cattle herds, filed bills this year to make the state liable for any such harm. Those measures died, but anti-elk sentiment remained strong.

Except for occasional wanderers, elk have not run wild in Missouri since 1865. Hunting and loss of habitat wiped out the animals' woodland and prairie hunting and mating grounds.

But interest has grown in recent years in bringing them back. Conservation officials say a limited reintroduction would provide a glimpse into the state's history. Elk have become tourist draws after they were reintroduced in Kansas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.

A $100,000 feasibility study, sponsored by the Conservation Department and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, determined that the habitat in Missouri could sustain elk where human-elk conflicts might be limited. The study also found that residents generally favor an experimental restoration program in remote areas south of the Missouri River.

The Conservation Commission decided in December to put off any such program for a few years, but set out criteria under which elk might some day return to Missouri.

Now, concerns about chronic wasting disease and the welfare of deer must be factored into any decision.

"Missouri's deer herd made an outstanding comeback during the past 60 years of careful management," Ollie Torgerson, administrator of the Conservation Department's Wildlife Division, said Thursday.

"Deer-related recreation accounts for almost a billion dollars in expenditures annually, and lots of enjoyment for Missouri hunters and citizens," he added. "Bringing in a potential source of infection, such as elk, risks the health of our native animals."

Conley said that if the commission approves the proposed moratorium on the elk effort, "we won't consider bringing in wild elk until more is known about chronic wasting disease and its control."

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