Conservation commission halts elk-restoration program

Conservation commission halts elk-restoration program

June 30, 2001 St. Louis Post-Dispatch by Tim Renken

Supporters of a program to reintroduce elk into Missouri are "very disappointed" that the state Conservation Commission shelved the plan.

The Commission at its meeting in St. Joseph Friday decided to halt its elk restoration program. The reason given was fear of chronic wasting disease, which is killing elk and deer in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and parts of Canada.

The move was not expected, even though early this year the Commission put the study on hold, citing concerns about problems that included disease. Last week the department's administrators and biologists recommended that the study be ended.

Norm Fogt, chairman of the elk restoration committee of the Missouri Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, expressed the group's disappointment and said he had hoped the Commission would be guided by the results of the study.

"Over 73 percent of Missouri respondents were in favor of restoring elk to remote areas of the Ozarks," he said. "This is an amazing percentage considering how polarized our society can be today."

Fogt said that captive deer and elk, not wild elk, pose the threat of spreading wasting disease.

"Any wild elk that would be considered for a relocation effort would follow a strict model health protocol used by other states," he said. "An experimental release of 50 elk in the 365-square-mile Peck Ranch Area would have no more of an impact than the herd of wild horses that currently roams the same range."

The original push for establishment of a small elk herd in the Missouri Ozarks came from the foundation, a conservation group of mostly big-game hunters.

Members approached the Commission with the idea in 1997. Subsequently, the Commission ordered a study to be funded by the foundation.

The state's agricultural community opposed the elk restoration. Farmers worried about crop damage by the big animals. Livestock raisers worried about elk bringing in diseases that could infect livestock. Others worried about elk-vehicle collisions.

Chronic Wasting Disease is one of a group of diseases known as transmissable spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), the same group of diseases that includes mad cow disease in cattle, scrapie in sheep, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. It has not been shown to be transmittable to humans, yet researchers will not rule it out.

Symptoms of Chronic Wasting Disease are behavioral changes, weight loss, excessive salivation, increased drinking and urination, often followed by pneumonia. It is always fatal to the animal.

The disease has not been found in Missouri. It first appeared in captive mule deer in Colorado and showed up in wild elk there in 1981. Since then, about 100 cases have been reported in Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and parts of Canada.

There is no vaccine to prevent Chronic Wasting Disease and no way has been found to test for it in live animals. Positive diagnosis can be made only by examining the brain of the dead animal.

Elk were once common in Missouri. The Lewis and Clark party lived on elk and deer while trekking up the Missouri River in 1804. But by 1865, elk were all but destroyed here by unregulated hunting.

Many states, including Arkansas, have re-introduced elk into limited areas.

The first phase of the elk study found that Missouri has two areas -- in the eastern and central Ozarks -- suitable for a small elk herd.

The second phase was a poll that indicated that the people of Missouri didn't know much about elk but liked the idea of having some. And it found that people living in the two reintroduction areas also liked the idea but were worried about the potential problems of having elk as neighbors.

In suspending the study early this year, the commission's stated reason was to give those "Missourians who want elk brought back to Missouri and those who have concerns about the idea to work with the Conservation Department to address a variety of issues, including concerns about vehicle accidents, damage to agricultural crops and the potential for elk carrying diseases that could affect livestock."

With an eye toward the mad cow outbreak in Europe and worry about Missouri deer, the Commission decided Friday that the risk was too great, given the present state of knowledge about wasting disease.

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

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