If Missouri's elk herd continues to grow the way it has, a very limited hunt might be possible by 2020.
That's the message the Missouri Conservation Commission heard from MDC wildlife biologist Aaron Hildreth.
Elk were reintroduced to southeast Missouri in 2011, and there are about 170 adult elk living in the Peck Ranch Conservation Area now, according to Hildreth. That doesn't include calves born this spring.
He said the elk herd needs to meet three criteria before MDC will move ahead with a limited elk season.
There needs to be a minimum population of 200 elks.
The elk herd needs to show a growth rate of at least 10 percent for three consecutive years.
There needs to be a ratio of 25 bull elk for every 100 females to ensure herd growth.
"Right now we have two of the three," Hildreth said. "We're seeing herd growth of 12 to 16 percent, and our bull to cow ration is well above 25 percent. We hope to hit that 200 elk herd number in 2019 or 2020."
Hunting will be used as the management tool to keep the herd from getting too large. Hildreth said MDC plans to take public comments on how people want MDC to approach the first official elk hunt in Missouri since the animals were removed from the landscape at the turn of the century.
MDC hopes to grow the herd to a target population of 400 to 500 elk and keep it there. Hildreth said the first hunt likely will be limited to only five or 10 permits — bull elk only.
The first hunt could be a mix of firearm and archery permits, but that also might depend on public input, he said. MDC is working on establishing rules of the hunt that it will eventually present to the Missouri Conservation Commission for approval.
Those rules also will address who could apply for one of the very limited initial permits and how often a person could apply. Hildreth said there likely will be three or four public meetings at towns near the elk herd (Van Buren, Winona, Ellington, Eminence) as well as an online method for people to submit comments.
It's likely an elk permit would be more expensive than a deer permit, but Hildreth said no final permit cost has been established.
"We know the permit draw odds are not good — there will be far more interest from people seeking a permit than available permits," he said. "This will also be a very dynamic process."
If the elk herd grows faster than expected, more hunting permits could be issued, he said. By the same measure, if disease or natural disaster like a wildfire or drought reduces the size of the herd, hunting could be suspended until the numbers rebound.
"If the population is at a point that it could sustain a harvest, we'll be ready with our regulations," he said.
MDC initially brought in 108 elk from Kentucky in 2011, but the herd dropped to 81 animals a year later, in part because of the stress of relocation and a sustained drought in 2012, Hildreth said.
Since then, however, the elk have flourished in the rolling hill habitat they once roamed. Hildreth said mountain lions — an elk's natural predator — are suspected of killing five elk so far.
Most of the elk have remained on the Peck Ranch property, though some have ventured beyond the conservation and wildlife refuge area. Hildreth said that since elk were reintroduced in 2011, only one has been hit by a car.
The accident in 2011 damaged the vehicle but didn't injure the driver.