Even the most ardent believer would be surprised to see St. Nick and his string of special deer in the skies of Kansas come Christmas Eve.
Ed Markel was almost as shocked to see another member of the deer family in Reno County last Sunday.
“When I first saw it, my first reaction was to notice it was a really big animal,” said Markel, of Pretty Prairie. “As soon as I put my binoculars on it, I thought, ‘Hey, that’s an elk.”
The longtime big game hunter is 100 percent sure of what he saw. Matt Peek, a Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism biologist, is about as certain, too.
“We’ve had a few elk scattered around for a long time, but they seem to be more frequent the past several years,” Peek said. “We’ve probably had enough to have some reproduction in Reno County in the past few years.”
Elk on the Kansas prairie haven’t always been unusual. James R. Mead, an early day buffalo hunter, trader and one of the founding fathers of Wichita, described big herds of Kansas elk between 1859 and 1875.
Peek said elk were primarily big deer of the grasslands, but people either shot them off or forced them to the Rocky Mountains by the late 1800s.
Elk provide meat that rivals prime beef for taste, and many early homesteaders fed their families elk. Since a big bull can weigh 800 to 1,000 pounds – about four times the size of our more numerous white-tailed buck – elk weren’t too popular when they raided pioneer gardens and crop fields.
After an absence of about 100 years, Wildlife and Parks reintroduced wild elk to the Cimarron National Grasslands in extreme southwest Kansas and to Fort Riley, near Junction City. There’s also a sizable herd at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge east of McPherson.
Herds of up to 75 animals also have appeared at two different places along the Arkansas River in western Kansas, probably moving in from Colorado.
Peek named about a dozen counties were wild elk have been verified within the past two years.
“It seems like the closer you get to Fort Riley, the more likely you are to see those kinds of elk,” said Peek, who estimates the herd at about 175 animals on the 101,000-acre military base. “But there are quite a few reports from central Kansas, too.”
He said it’s impossible to know from which direction such elk came.
Many sightings are along the Ninnescah River system in Kingman, Pratt and Reno counties. Last year a cow and several bulls were photographed on remote trail cameras usually placed by hunters in that region.
Earlier this fall a bull was photographed west of Pratt, and another was killed on the road east of the town. Several have been sighted in Reno and Kingman counties. Another was poached in late November near the Rice-Reno county line.
Recent reports also have come from Ellsworth, Saline, Marion, Dickinson, Sedgwick, Lyon and Chase counties.
A few years ago Peek speculated there might be reproducing populations in up to six or seven regions of Kansas. He also cautioned that because of their highly mobile nature, many of the elk sightings could be the same animal.
Some could be young bulls looking for good territory. Others could be on the move as they try to survive.
Peek said the ongoing drought, especially severe in southwest Kansas, could have caused some elk to stay on the move looking for food and water.
Several states – such as Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Missouri and Arkansas – have reintroduced elk that have grown to sizable enough populations to support eco-tourism and hunting.
But some Kansans aren’t too excited about a possible comeback.
Several years ago Wildlife and Parks got complaints from some farmers and agricultural groups about the possible damage elk could do to crop fields. A fondness for irrigated crops in nearby Oklahoma and Colorado lead to the near decimation of the Cimarron National Grasslands herd.
For that reason, Kansas landowners and residents can purchase elk hunting permits for about 61/2 months of the year. Such permits are good in areas other than the Cimarron National Grasslands and the Fort Riley area, where Wildlife and Parks is working to manage elk numbers.
“We’re not going to tell someone they have to have elk on their property,” Peek said of the long season and unlimited permits. “If they’re suffering some damage, this lets them do something.”
There also has been concern about the hazards elk could pose for Kansas motorists. Rare is the elk-vehicle collision that doesn’t result in a totaled car or truck.
But there are some who would like to see elk get a little better established.
Markel owns several thousand acres, and manages it largely for wildlife habitat. The elk he saw last Sunday reminded him of a once exciting time in his life.
“It’s like when we first started seeing deer, someone would see one and it was exciting,” he said. “We went from none, to a few, then to a major population. I don’t think elk could quite do the same thing, but if the habitat’s good enough it may be good to have a few around.”