Rural Missouri - September 2017 - 8
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by Zach Smith | email@example.com
Keeping track of
Missouri's growing herd
here's no hospital at Peck Ranch Conservation Area, but every summer
since 2012 the area has transformed into a four-legged nursery for
Missouri's restoration elk herd.
Since the original elk were transplanted to Missouri from Kentucky
six years ago, their number has grown from around 90 animals to 140. Toward
an eventual goal of 400 to 500, that's slow growth, but Dave Hasenbeck, elk
program manager for the Missouri Department of Conservation, says that measured pace has been good for public perception of the project.
"Anyone who might have had some concerns is seeing that we aren't being
swamped by elk," Dave says, adding a popular misconception is that the herd is
one day intended to populate the entire state. "When we do have a large population and elk on some folks' pastures, we will help them deal with it - but we're
just not seeing it at this point."
Over time the elk seem to have developed an afﬁnity for their release site,
sticking primarily to the boundaries of Peck Ranch, the Ozark National Scenic
Riverways and Current River Conservation Area. This area near Winona was
chosen by MDC for having the lowest population density and number of roads
but also the highest percentage of public land. Dave adds the department works
with more than 75 cooperators in the area who are actively engaged in some
type of land management practice that beneﬁt the elk and nearly 100 other
plant and animal species endemic to the woodlands.
For the four-member research crew working at Peck Ranch this summer,
monitoring the herd's growth is a mixture of science and art. Using GPS satellites, the crew tracks the location of elk that were collared and given implants
over the winter. The goal is to record and analyze the data provided by all of this
high-tech equipment, then use intuition and ﬁeld knowledge to determine when
an expectant mom has given birth. The better they can track the movements of
mother and child, the better chance the team has of getting a collar and microchip on the calf.
"It's difﬁcult because you're trying to guess based on behavior, and animal behavior is pretty subjective," says crew leader Brittany Peterson, an elk
research specialist. Although the team likes to ﬁnd the calf as soon as possible
after birth, they aren't always so lucky. One baby this year managed to avoid
detection until it was almost a week old and harder to capture, so the team
noted the birth and let it go uncollared.
"We don't want to attempt it when we have so much going on because it's
going to be ﬁghting us, it's going to be vocal - let's cut our losses," she says.
"I'm OK with missing one. We probably wouldn't be able to catch it anyway,
and nothing is more embarrassing than being outrun by a seven-day old."
Calving events are the big moments the crew anticipates, but there's little downtime for the technicians. Collar and implant signals have to be monitored, so
two techs drive around the refuge and surrounding area twice a day to make
sure the equipment is still transmitting data. Whoever isn't on active duty is
standing by to assist in case there's a birth.
"Emma was supposed to have her day off, and I got to wake her up at 6 a.m.,"
Brittany says of tech Emma Kring. "That's ﬁeldwork. It's very mercurial and it
takes a certain personality to do it, but I love it."
Using telemetry equipment, the researchers dial in to frequencies speciﬁc to
each collar or implant and listen for barely perceptible codes embedded in the
signals. To the untrained ear these clicks sound like static, but they communicate the last several hours of activity for each animal. Other implants are more
sophisticated, sending an email to the research crew the moment it detects a
change in temperature and light that is usually associated with a calving event.
At 2:30 a.m. on this early June day the team receives such a message.
Light breaks over Shannon County and the team fans out across a food plot
near Thorny Mountain. Research Technician Emily Burkholder takes the lead
with the telemetry equipment tracking the dropped implant while Brittany scans
the ﬁeld and woods with forward-looking infrared, or FLIR, binoculars which
detect the animal's thermal signature. Dave and Emma back them up, looking
for signs of a mom or calf. Emily locates the implant where it appears elk bedded
down, but a search of the ﬁeld and woods reveals nothing. The team checks the
cow's location with satellite data and returns to Thorny in the evening. Just as
Top: A bull elk with antlers displaying the fuzzy velvet of summer growth looks over a food
plot in the valley of Peck Ranch. Left: The research team searches for a cow elk's implant in a
ﬁeld near Thorny Mountain. Bottom left and right: Bull elk graze food plots in the refuge
as the day's hot weather cools and sunset approaches.
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - September 2017
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Intro
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Cover1
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Cover2
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Contents
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - 4
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - 5
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - 6
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - 7
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - 8
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Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Cover3
Rural Missouri - September 2017 - Cover4