WINONA, Mo. (AP) -- Elk have returned to Missouri for the first time since the Civil War amid a mix of awe and opposition from farmers and some lawmakers.
Missouri Department of Conservation spokesman Joe Jerek told The Associated Press that the first group of 34 animals arrived safely Thursday morning after spending three months quarantined at a conservation area in Kentucky. For up to two weeks, they will be kept in a 3-acre holding area at the Peck Ranch Conservation Area, which is part of a 346-square-mile elk restoration zone in parts of Shannon, Carter and Reynolds counties.
Conservation officials said a portion of Peck Ranch will remain closed to the public through July to give a chance for the elk to deliver their calves and adjust to their surroundings. Eventually, up to 150 animals could be introduced into the largely wooded area.
"There is no higher calling in conservation than restoring a native game species to sustainable, huntable, balanced populations," David Allen, president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which has helped reintroduce elk in several states and has donated more than $300,000 to bring the animals to Missouri, said in a prepared statement.
Missouri Department of Conservation Director Bob Ziehmer said the arrival of the elk shows that long-term conservation and restoration efforts are coming to fruition.
"Who would have thought 30 years ago that we would be standing here this morning watching elk return to Missouri?" Ziehmer said in a statement.
Critics, however, have raised concern about crop damage, spreading disease to livestock and accidents with vehicles. Conservation officials have responded by saying the animals have underwent stringent disease testing. They said that while vehicle collisions with elk have occurred, they tend to be uncommon because elk are less likely to dash across highways during mating season than deer and note that the restoration zone has relatively few roads.
Despite the assurances, lawmakers this year have considered legislation that would require the Department of the Conservation to own any elk within Missouri and to pick up the tab for damaged crops and pastures, sickened livestock, trampled fencing and wrecked vehicles after collisions with elk.
Conservation officials have said that in North America, wildlife is not considered to be owned by anyone and that the legislation would establish a dangerous precedent for the ownership of other wild animals such as deer, turkey and squirrels.
Rep. Rodney Schad, R-Versailles, said Thursday that he would seek to offer an amendment early next week that would allow farmers and landowners to kill wild elk that have damaged their fences, crops and other agricultural property. The proposed amendment drops the portion of the bill he sponsored dealing with Conservation Department owning the elk.
"They are taking a specific action that endangers the lives of Missourians, that was not there yesterday," he said. "They are putting farmers' livelihoods in danger."
Meanwhile, University of Missouri-Columbia anthropologist Lee Lyman told the Columbia Daily Tribune that prehistoric evidence shows the animals originally lived in the northwest part of the state.
"This is not elk country, in my opinion," Lyman said. He warned the decision to put elk in a location where they did not previously live could have "unintended negative consequences that are difficult to predict."
The Missouri Department of Conservation said southeastern Missouri had the most suitable habitat for elk. Jerek said that while elk may not have roamed the state 50,000 years ago, the writings of early travelers and settlers show they lived in the region 200 years ago.
The department plans to keep the animals to the restoration zone through trapping, relocation and euthanasia. Officials say that bringing elk back could offer an economic boost through tourism and hunting.
Several states including Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Tennessee have restored elk.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)