JEFFERSON CITY - One of Western America's largest and most majestic wild animals is heading back to Missouri -- maybe.
Missouri's Conservation Department will launch a study to determine if reintroducing elks into the Ozarks would be a good idea.
The possibility of elk reintroduction has conservationists and environmentalists giddy, while farmers and ranchers are livid at the prospect.
"Adding elk will be another jewel in the chest of natural resource treasures Missourians can enjoy," said Norman Fogt, spokesman for the Wild Elk Institute of Missouri which proposed the study to the department.
"We'd like to see the return of all native species," said Roger Pryor, spokesman for the Missouri Coalition for the Environment. "Bringing the elk back is a great start."
The elk is native to the state, disappearing probably around 1865 after widespread hunting.
The study, which will be funded by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, will determine if enough habitat exists to support a herd. The department will then survey public opinion across the state. In all, the study is expected to take 2-3 years.
Elks bring with them plenty of problems, said department deer biologist Lonnie Hansen, including destruction to farmer's fences.
"All of the problems will be considered in the study," he said. "We want to find habitat where agriculure is at a minimum."
Despite the department's efforts to deal with potential problems, Jay Truitt of the Missouri Cattleman's Association is steadfast against the reintroduction.
"Releasing elk is one of the worst possible things the department could do," he said. "Elk are known carriers of tuberculosis and brucellosis. We're afraid they will infect Missouri cattle."
Brucellosis can cause abortions and other reproductive problems in cattle. "We have almost eradicated those diseases in Missouri," he said.
Disease is only one of Truitt's complaints about elk.
"Can you imagine ramming a 1,000 pound elk on the road?" he asked.
Dan Cassidy of the Missouri Farm Bureau echoed Truitt's concerns adding that "all the things deer do to upset farmers -- like eating their crops -- will be intensified with elk."
The elk is one of the world's largest deer species, standing about five feet high at the shoulder and weighing up to 1,000 pounds. While elk formerly roamed throughout the temperate forests of the United States, hunting and habitat destruction has reduced its current range to the western states and Canada.
Wild elk have successfully been reintroduced in Northern Arkansas in the Buffalo National River area. That program, begun in 1981, brought just over 100 wild-caught elk from Colorado into Arkansas. The population has grown to 450, enough to justify the state's first elk hunt last fall.
The eventual hunting of the elks is another issue of controversy.
"Hunting is a possibility that we wouldn't shy away from if the population could support it," Hansen said. "Since an adult elk would face few predators, if any, in Missouri, hunting may be the most feasible way to control elk population."
While he supports the reintroduction of elk, Pryor questions the department's motivation in all its introduction programs.
"I'm gauled by the fact that no animal is worthy of reintroduction unless it can be shot," he said.
Hansen denies this charge, pointing to the department's efforts to aid the peregrine falcon, which is not hunted.
Surprisingly, local hunters are not champing at the bit to get at Missouri elks, if and when there are any.
"The challenge of hunting elk is tracking them through mountains," said Doug Grindstaff, a Columbia hunter. "In Missouri, it would be like shooting overgrown deer in fields."
Hunter Murray Webster, of Jefferson City, said he prefers traveling to mountainous places in the West to hunt and track elk.
Elk or no elk, the wildlife landscape in Missouri has recently become more primal. The department confirmed in January that Missouri is home to at least one mountain lion. "Though probably more are loose in the wild," said department biologist Dave Hamilton.
It could not be ruled out that the lion had escaped from captivity, but biologists discovered deer carcasses killed by the lion that indicated experience in hunting. "That kind of experience is learned from a mother, not in captivity," Hamilton said.
The mountain lion was discovered in Texas County, an Ozark county that will be featured in the department elk study.
Hamilton added that a mountain lion might occasionally prey on elk, but is more likely to focus on the smaller and more abundant deer.