Over the past few decades Missourians have seen the return of elk, feral hogs and black bear to the state along with a more recent increase in the number of confirmed mountain lion sightings and even a couple of confirmed sightings of wolves.
Missourians of course know how and why some of these large animals have returned; the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) recently reintroduced elk to the eastern Ozarks region; black bear have been gradually migrating from Arkansas into the Ozarks, and feral hog numbers have increased dramatically as domestic hogs released by hunters have reproduced in the wild.
Less clearly defined are the reasons for the recent dramatic increase in the number of confirmed mountain lion sightings and at least two confirmed sightings of grey (or "timber") wolves.
In both cases the MDC says the animals probably wondered into Missouri from states to the north and west and goes on to say there is no evidence that either species have established breeding populations here.
Still there have been 36 sightings of fully-grown mountain lions that have been confirmed by the MDC during the past 20 years, with more than three fourths of those sightings coming in the past four years.
In fact, sightings of the large cats have become so commonplace that the MDC regularly posts photos and other evidence confirming the presence of the large animals on its website.
And all these confirmed sightings did not take place in remote areas. In fact, there have been confirmed sightings of mountain lions in the heavily populated western region of St. Louis County; several years ago a mountain lion was hit and killed by a motorist on Highway 54 near Fulton and about the same time one was hit by a motorist on Interstate 35 in Kansas City and found dead a few hours later. Furthermore, there have been at least two incidents where the MDC confirmed that hunters and/or farmers had shot and killed a mountain lion on there own property.
Still even following the latest sighting, announced by the MDC just two weeks ago, the agency continues to assert that the animals are wandering into Missouri from states as far away as South Dakota and Wyoming and show no evidence of having established a breeding population here. In the late 1990s, however, the MDC created a mountain lion response team and continues to ask the public to report suspected sightings of the big cats to a member of that team.
Although mountain lions once roamed throughout Missouri, the animals were hunted to extinction in the state by the early part of the 20th century. In addition to the over harvesting of the big cats, the fact that whitetail deer, the cats' major food source, had also been hunted to near extinction prevented the big cats from returning to the Midwest. However over the past 50 years or so, wildlife preservation and reintroduction programs has brought back several near extinct wildlife species and some experts believe that fact has also acted to draw other large wild animals back to the state.
At one point elk also roamed freely throughout Missouri but were also hunted to extinction, however two years ago the MDC announced it had begun a program to reintroduce elk to the state. Working in conjunction with Kentucky wildlife programs, state biologists brought forty or so of the large members of the deer family from that state to the Peck Ranch Wildlife Preserve in Texas and Shannon counties.
Although there was some loss of life during that first year largely due to the extremely harsh winter of 2010, today the elk herd is so well established the MDC has designated one road through the wildlife preserve as an "elk viewing route."
Black bear have been returning to Missouri for at least 30 years, still the MDC says it doesn't have a clear picture of exactly how many live in the state. If fact, a couple of years ago that agency set up a program designed to determine just how large and widespread Missouri's black bear population is.
Currently, MDC biologist estimate the population at between 300 and 500, but also note that while most of the animals are found in the southwestern portion of the Ozarks, black bear sightings have been reported throughout the state.
Over the past five or six years, the number of sightings has been increasing and, more and more, are coming from areas outside the heavily timbered southern most counties.
According to the MDC website, since 2005 there have been at least seven sightings of black bear right here in Camden, Miller and Morgan counties (most in and around Lake of the Ozarks State) and an increasing number of sightings north of the Missouri River.
Wild hogs, too, have become a problem in Missouri. Again, no one is exactly sure just how many of the animals are running wild in the state, but it is known the largest numbers can be found in the heavily timbered southern Ozark counties.
However, despite not having a clear picture of just how widespread the feral hog problem is, the MDC makes it clear that wild hogs are not native to Missouri and should be destroyed on sight.
The MDC also believes the state's feral hog population is a result of the illegal release of domestic hogs into the wild and speculates that would be "hog hunters" may have captured wild boars in other states then released them in remote regions of the Ozarks.
Although there have not been any confirmed reports of feral hogs in the immediate Lake Area. Hickory County, just to the southwest, is one of the regions of the state where feral hogs have become a major nuisance.
In fact, feral hogs are such a problem in parts of the state that while the MDC does not place a bounty on them, the agency does encourage "hunters to shoot to kill on sight" and to immediately report the location where the animal was first encountered to that agency.
Feral hogs and wild boars are both considered extremely dangerous and destructive animals. The MDC warns that not only can a herd of wild hogs destroy acres of productive crop and/or timberland in the space of a few hours, but they have also been known to attack human beings without provocation.
Once native to Missouri, some individuals also believe that both red and grey wolves are also gradually returning to the state.
In the 1800s, grey wolves could be found throughout northern half of Missouri and red wolves roamed freely in the eastern regions of the Ozarks. By the early part of the 20th century both breeds had been hunted to extinction throughout the state. And, while there have been no confirmed sightings of red wolves in recent years, in past two years the MDC has confirmed that in two separate incidents a grey wolf was shot and killed by a hunter who believed he was bagging a very large coyote.
In Nov. 2011 a hunter shot a grey wolf in Carroll County just east of the Kansas City area and in Nov. 2012, the MDC confirmed that a "very large coyote" killed by a hunter in Howard County was in fact a grey wolf.
All the animals mentioned above, with the exception of feral or wild hogs, are protected under state law and may only be killed by accident except when a human feels that they are being personally threatened or when their domestic livestock is in danger.
In all the incidents mentioned above the MDC absolved the individual who killed one of the protected animals of blame because that person had legitimate reason to believe that killing the animal was necessary for self protection or because the shooting was the result of mistaken identity.
For more information about large game in Missouri log onto the Missouri Department of Conservation website at www.mdc.mo.gov.