Elk hunting could return to Missouri as early as next year, according to Sara Parker Pauley, director of the Missouri Department of Conservation. Courtesy | MDC

Sara Parker Pauley was in Joplin last week to check on the progress of the Shoal Creek Conservation Education Center.

Pauley, director of the Missouri Department of Conservation, was accompanied by Aaron Jeffries, deputy director, and joined by others, including Kevin Badgley, manager of the center, formerly the Wildcat Glades Conservation & Audubon Center.

The building has been closed since last year, when the National Audubon Society withdrew from the partnership. Since then, MDC has found a number of problems that it is working to repair as well as getting displays ready.

Jeffries said the hope is that the building will open some time this summer.

“We ask for just a little more patience here,” Pauley added. “This is a priority for our commission.”

I used the opportunity to ask them about a number of other changes and challenges in Missouri, including:

Chronic wasting disease

This is not just a Missouri issue but a regional and even a national challenge, as evidenced by the explosion of CWD cases in northern Arkansas in the past few years that have now pushed into Southwest Missouri. Nearly 600 CWD positives have popped up in Arkansas in the past three years, with Carroll and Boone counties, along the state line, among the hot spots. Last year, a buck taken in Stone County, Missouri, in early November tested positive for CWD. It was the first detection of CWD in this corner of the state. Another positive soon turned up in Taney County.

There’s little doubt that more encroachment is likely to follow in Southwest Missouri.

MDC biologists are meeting with their counterparts in other states to find out what is working and to coordinate strategies, but Pauley said the disease is here to stay for now, adding: “We don’t believe, in my lifetime, we will rid ourselves of this disease.”

She added: “We are committed to keeping the spread as low as possible.”

This week, the agency proposed new regulations for transporting deer carcasses and added carcass-disposal rules for meat processors and taxidermists. If approved, the regulations would become effective next year. The agency is seeking public comment on the proposed regulations through early August at short.mdc.mo.gov/Z49. More changes will be coming that will affect management and hunting. We’ll keep you updated.

CWD was first found in Missouri at private big-game breeding and hunting sites in 2010 and 2011; the first positive cases in free-ranging deer were found in 2012 near those private breeding and hunting sites.

According to a statement, MDC has tested more than 130,000 deer for the disease since the first cases were detected; the number of positive cases is currently at 116.

Elk hunting

The department began stocking elk in Missouri nearly a decade ago at Peck Ranch, part of a patchwork of public and private land between the Current and Eleven Point rivers.

A different subspecies of elk was once home in the Ozarks, and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the first person to leave behind a detailed account of the Ozarks in 1818-1819 — before statehood and settlement — gives the impression that elk were common. In fact, Schoolcraft wrote about coming upon an elk antler of “astonishing size” near the North Fork River in 1818 that he and a companion hung in an oak tree to signal to other visitors that humans had passed that way. They named a nearby spring Elkhorn Spring.

Missouri’s native elk were eventually wiped out, but with the reintroduction, the plan has always been to restore elk hunting in the state, perhaps as early as next year. It will be the first elk hunting in Missouri in more than 130 years. The last elk killed in Missouri was in 1886 in Texas County.

How many permits will be available and other details are still be sorted out.

“We have already been presenting to our commission what that elk season might look like,” Pauley said. “Right now our fingers ares still crossed for a 2020 season.”

Trout fishing

I just returned from a four-day camping trip to Roaring River State Park. Our oldest son called and wanted to take our 2-year-old granddaughter on her first camping trip. She ate her first campfire-cooked s’mores, spent her first night in a tent, toted around a firefly lantern, hiked her first Ozark trail and even helped me reel in her first rainbow.

When the kids were little, and I paid for their trout tags, and later their first licenses, the cost for a day of fishing at Roaring River could add up, particularly if you include the cost of the gas, a meal at the lodge or in Cassville, and the sundry incidentals we always end up buying in the park store when we go fishing, everything from ice cream to sun block.

Like a lot of area families, we have accrued a stringer full of memories around Roaring River and its trout fishing, memories that are priceless, and with a new generation, we hope to add more.

That’s why I’m not too worried about the latest change, and I guess I am not alone.

MDC recently proposed that, beginning next year, the cost of an annual trout permit go from $7 to $10 for anglers ages 16 and older and from $3.50 to $5 for anglers ages 15 and younger. The cost of a daily trout tag to fish Roaring River or the other state trout parks — Maramec Spring Park, Bennett Spring State Park and Montauk — will go from $3 to $4 for adults and from $2 to $3 for those 15 years of age and younger.

(A trout permit is required to possess trout, except in trout parks where a daily trout fishing tag is required during the catch-and-keep season from March 1 to Oct. 31. A trout permit also is required for winter fishing in trout parks during the catch-and-release season and for fishing year-round in Lake Taneycomo upstream from the U.S. Highway 65 bridge. A fishing permit also is required, unless you qualify for an exemption.)

Pauley noted that MDC has not raised permit prices in two decades, and according to MDC, in 2003, the cost to raise a trout in the hatcheries and stock them in streams was about $1 per fish; by 2017, it was twice that, just for the food and labor. That does not include maintaining the hatchery infrastructure.

She also said the state has spent more than $11 million in recent years repairing and improving its hatcheries. Last fall, it broke ground on a $1.9 million renovation at Roaring River that involves a number of improvements. The work was ongoing when we were there last weekend, delayed, no doubt, by the rains.

MDC is accepting public comments on the proposed changes through early August at short.mdc.mo.gov/Z49.

“We are getting hundreds of comments,” Pauley said. “By and large the comments we have received on that particular issue have been positive.”

Prairie chickens

I asked these MDC leaders if there is much that can be done for the greater prairie chicken in the region.

The short answer is “No.”

It’s apparent now that Southwest Missouri will soon lose its greater prairie chicken population. Despite a saturation stocking effort several years ago involving hundreds of birds, the population at Taberville Prairie Conservation Area, north of El Dorado Springs, is close to being wiped out, and the population at the nearby Wah’ Kon-Tah Prairie has failed to sustain itself.

Which means there likely will soon be just one small population left in a single county in northern Missouri along the Iowa border.

This has been a long fight — in 1907, the greater prairie chicken became the first species in the state given protection from hunting. Max Alleger, grassland biologist for MDC, recently told the Globe: “It’s tough to be an 1800s bird in the 21st century.”

The bird was once abundant in Missouri, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, but then the state also had 15 million acres of tallgrass prairie.

As recently as 1999, the state had a greater prairie chicken population estimated at 1,000.

Badgley said that in 2004, when he worked at Prairie State Park, they had a winter flock of 67 birds; there was a confirmed sighting in the park of a greater prairie chicken this winter, but it has been the only bird seen in that park in several years.

The problem is that only one-half of 1% of native prairie remains in Missouri today.

Jeffires said, “We can make good prairie chicken habitat, we just can’t make enough of it.”

In other words, it’s not just tough to be an 1800s bird in the 21st century, it may be impossible.

Andy Ostmeyer is the metro 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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