Elk hunting could happen in Missouri as early as next year.

I emphasize “could.”

I spoke last week to Jason Isabelle, cervid program supervisor for the Missouri Department of Conservation, to get an update on the state’s elk population and plans.

Missouri started bringing elk in 2011 to its Peck Ranch Conservation Area in Shannon and Carter counties and continued it for a couple more years. The population has been building since.

Isabelle told me MDC set a number of “biological benchmarks” it wanted to hit before opening a hunting season.

“We wanted to have at least 200 elk,” he said. “We wanted the population to be growing at least 10% a year. We wanted to have a bull for every four elk.”

Missouri is close to hitting those benchmarks; MDC will know more after surveys this fall and winter, including aerial surveys, and then make a final determination about next year’s hunting season.

“We could have our inaugural elk season possibly as early as the fall of 2020,” Isabelle told me last week.

Inaugural is the right word, because Missouri has never had an elk season, even though it historically had elk.

Lewis and Clark wrote about elk in Missouri during their journey from 1804-1806. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who wandered through the Ozarks for three months in the winter of 1818-1819, wrote of being disturbed at night by elk and deer and of regularly seeing either elk or evidence of them.

“This ridge appears to be a favorite for elk and bear, which have been frequently seen in our path,” he wrote when they were exploring the upper reaches of the North Fork River one November day in 1818.

Two days later, Schoolcraft and a companion stumbled upon elk antlers that he wrote were of a “most astonishing size, which I afterward hung up on a limb of a contiguous oak, to advertise to (the) future traveler that he had been preceded by human footsteps in his visit to Elkhorn Spring.”

Today, it’s called Topaz Spring, in Douglas County.

Over the next 80 years, elk were wiped out in the Ozarks; the last elk killed in Missouri, by the way, was in 1886, in Texas County.

Two centuries after Schoolcraft, it won’t be exactly the same, of course

The Ozarks historically had eastern elk, which are now extinct. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there were once six subspecies of elk in North America, and two are wiped out (the other extinct subspecies is Merriam’s elk, historically found in the Southwestern United States).

I have seen accounts that say eastern elk were significantly larger than Rocky Mountain elk. That is the subspecies that has been brought back in places back east, including Kentucky, which is where Missouri got its initial 108 elk beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2013.

Arkansas today has a herd of elk estimated at 500-600; it too is descended from Rocky Mountain elk.

Keith Stephens, with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, told me they started bringing in elk from Colorado in the early 1980s. It wasn’t long afterward that I saw my first one along the upper Buffalo River, near Steel Creek.

Rocky Mountain have taken well to the Ozarks, he said.

The Arkansas herd has for the most part stayed along the Buffalo River, where it has become a major tourist attraction. One town (Jasper, Arkansas) has an annual elk festival in the summer. And each fall, visitors come to Boxley Valley on the upper river by the hundreds to hear them bugling and take photos.

Stephens also told me that 5,000 people applied last year for 84 hunting permits on public and private land.

There’s no reason Missouri’s herd won’t do as well, both for tourists and hunters, on a patchwork of public and private land between the Current and Eleven Point rivers.

“We’ve got a driving route through Peck Ranch that offers a good opportunity to see elk,” Isabelle also told me.

The state also has a framework in place for a hunting season. It would include a nine-day archery season in October and a nine-day firearms season in December once those benchmarks are met. It would be a lottery, open only to Missouri residents and limited to bulls at first.

If you want to get up to speed on Missouri elk and the state’s hunting plans, block out an hour next week for an MDC webcast, from noon to 1 p.m. Wednesday. MDC experts will share information and webcast participants can post questions. Register in advance at short.mdc.mo.gov/ZMb and then view the live webcast from a computer or mobile device.

Andy Ostmeyer is the managing editor for The Joplin Globe. Contact him at aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro editor at the Globe. His email address is aostmeyer@joplinglobe.com.

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