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Elk, bears on the move in Missouri

Elk and bear numbers are on the rise here in Missouri, but it hasn’t always been this way. In the early 1800s, settlers described the abun­dant wildlife they witnessed while traveling across Missouri. Bear and elk were accounted for numerous times in their recordings. Unfortu­nately, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, most of these animals—if not all—were eliminated from our state’s landscape. Over-hunting and loss of habitat were the main causes of bear and elk decline.

About a decade ago, the Mis­souri Department of Conservation (MDC), which is tasked with pro­tecting and managing the fish, for­est and wildlife of Missouri, made a concerted effort to do more research and to promote these two species. As a result, both elk and bear popu­lations are making a comeback.

Wild elk populations in Missou­ri were nonexistent before recent reintroduction efforts took place. From 2011-2013, along with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, MDC staff built large enclosures and corrals to capture elk in Kentucky and bring them back to Missouri. After appropriate testing, vaccinations and quarantine period, the first 100 elk were transported to Missouri and released in the MDC Elk Resto­ration Zone, which covers portions of Shannon, Reynolds and Carter counties in the south-central part of the state.

This area was chosen for sever­al reasons. The zone covers 346 square miles (79% public land) to allow the elk population to grow and to have minimal negative impacts to private property, while providing the type of habitat that these animals need for survival. This large public land holding al­lowed conservation agencies to put forth massive management efforts and to ensure suitable habitat re­mained while the elk herd grew.

From the base herd of around 100 animals in 2013, Missouri’s elk pop­ulation—prior to the 2021 calving season—has grown to 241 individu­als. The elk reintroduction program had a long-term population goal of 500 animals and benchmarks set to institute a hunting season to help manage the herd. In 2020, the elk herd reached those benchmarks, and Missouri’s first modern-day elk-hunting season began.

Not only have elk made a come­back, but black bears in Missouri have also been on the rise. Like elk, bear populations in Missouri had been nearly wiped out in the early to mid-20th century. Very few sightings occurred from early 1900s to the 1950s. In 1959, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission initiat­ed a restoration program in which 254 black bears were caught and released over a period of eight years in the Ozark and Ouachita moun­tains of western Arkansas. From the 1970s to 2017, bear sightings in Missouri increased and then grew exponentially over the past decade.

Starting in 2010, MDC made it a priority to better understand bear habitat use and the dynamics of this growing population. In 2012, it was estimated that the bear population in Missouri was just around 300. In 2019, the state had between 540 and 840 bears with an annual growth rate of 9%.

Like elk, Missouri’s Black Bear Management Plan had population benchmarks established to explore whether a limited and highly regu­lated hunting season could be put in place. In 2021, those levels were met, and Missouri began to allow black bear hunting.

It’s hard to believe that in fewer years than I have been alive, Missouri has gone from essentially no elk or black bears to a viable hunting population for both spe­cies. This success story shows the value of our conservation depart­ment and its partners. This valiant effort could not have been a success without these agencies as well as public support from the residents of Missouri. There continues to be great effort put into these programs to learn more about bear and elk and ensure they do not fade away.

Missouri’s hunting heritage is another reason for the success of elk and bear reintroduction. Sportsmen are conservationists at heart, and conservationists want to protect the species they love to chase. Without support and help from hunters in Missouri, these efforts would not have achieved the favorable out­come we are seeing today.

The 2021 black bear hunting season was Oct. 18-27, with a limited number of permits issued to eligible applicants through a random drawing. For elk hunting in 2021, MDC designated a nine-day archery portion running Oct. 16-24 and a nine-day firearms portion running Dec. 11-19. Five permits for bull elk were assigned through a random drawing of eligible appli­cants. The application period for managed hunts of both species runs from May 1-31 with the drawing held July 1.

Learn more about bear or elk hunting at huntfish.mdc.mo.gov.

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