Raising Elk: The Natural Choice on Range

General George W. Russ explains why raising elk is the perfect choice for the Ozarks and how these magestic animals can actually benefit the rangeland.

| March/April 1971

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    Elk can be easily tamed and domesticated, much like the reindeer.
    Photo courtesy of Wyoming Game and Fish Dept.
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    Elks are equipped with a thick winter coat, keeping them warm in even the coldest of weather.
    Photo courtesy of Wyoming Game and Fish Dept.

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  • 008-067-01

Few states had game laws at the turn of the century and wild meat was offered to the housewife along with beef, pork and mutton. Wild pigeons were, for a time, so plentiful that often only the breasts were taken and salted down for future use. Deer hams were cheaper than pork and prime elk meat, which discriminating gourmets preferred was always at a premium to the finest cuts of farm-raised, stall-fattened beef. Knowing this, General George W. Russ, one time adjutant general for the state of Indiana, decided to try domesticating and producing the elk.

General Russ had fallen victim to a respiratory ailment and when he failed to respond to accepted treatments of the day, his doctors advised him to go west on the theory that a change of climate might speed recovery. Russ located first in Western Texas but found little benefit in that hot, dry plains country. Friends then told him about the health-giving waters of Eureka Springs and the salubrious climate of the Arkansas Ozarks. He came to investigate, was immediately enchanted, his family joined him and Russ' health improved so much that he soon sought an outlet for his renewed energy and ambition.

Like many others, General Russ' attachment for the Ozarks found expression in the purchase of large tracts of the cheap, hilly and rocky brushland which was too rough for ordinary farming or grazing. Russ set about finding uses for the property and first introduced Angora goats—hoping they would clear the tangles of underbrush and prove profitable—but wolves, renegade dogs and other predators could not be held in check and the thickets were not conquered by the goats.

In 1903, the General bought a small herd of elk in Northern Missouri and established the animals on a thousand-acre ranch on the John Creek Branch of the White River in Carroll County. This was rough terrain that had grown up to an impenetrable jungle of vines, underbrush and scrubby second growth hardwoods after the commercial timber had been cut. There were then and are now millions of acres of such land in many sections of the country for which no commercial use has been established.

General Russ had the land fenced and employed a rider to watch over the animals and keep the fence in repair. He believed that elk could be tamed and would live and thrive on range that would not support beef, sheep or goats and his experience proved this to be correct; so much so, that his success was reported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a bulletin of the Biological Survey issued December 31, 1910, entitled: Raising Deer and Other Large Animals in the United States.

"Elk," said the General, "are much better adapted to forest grazing and browsing than goats. They are able to defend themselves and protect their young from wolves and other predators. Furthermore, they do not damage useful trees by gnawing at the bark or girdling them, as do goats. They can feed on leaf buds and twigs as high as eight feet above ground, twice the reach of a goat."

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