Majestic in their season

The tour cordinators at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge want to let people know they don’t have to travel to the Rocky Mountains to see elk in their natural setting.

“We know a lot of people who went to Colorado to see elk and never got to see them,” said Owen Meier.

Meier and his wife, Della, work at the tour center and guide visitors around the extensive preserve.

“People don’t realize they can come out and view the elk this close to home,” he said.

Located six miles north of Canton, the 2,800-acre prairie sanctuary is home to about 200 buffalo and 50 Rocky Mountain elk.

The Meiers are self-employed tour guides who also do minimal part-time work at the refuge for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks.

“I do this because I want to promote the prairie,” Meier said.

“But it’s teamwork,” he said of the time he spends volunteering for the KDWP in cooperation with the Friends of Maxwell, a non-profit organization.

Part of the Meiers’ tour-guide work is public relations-letting people know they have a unique opportunity to see elk and buffalo roaming the open prairie in co-existence and harmony.

“The elk run wild on the open range here,” Meier said. “We maintain them as a very wild herd.”

The first elk were introduced into the refuge in 1951.

“We started with six elk-about one or two bulls, and the rest were females,” Meier said.

The original stock came from the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge located north of Lawton, Okla.

“That was probably an arrangement between state departments,” Meier said. “The elk were transplanted here.”

Today, the herd includes at least 12 breeding bulls and 10 cows in addition to many younger bulls and calves.

“We don’t have an actual count on them because we run them wild, and they’re split up,” Meier said.

Maintenance requirements are minimal. “They just get a few range cubes in the wintertime, and that’s all they get,” he said.

Range cubes are dietary protein supplements. They’re designed to supply energy and extra protein to maintain proper digestion for animals living in areas of below-average forage.

“We’re getting the range cubes out of Hillsboro right now,” Meier said. “It’s all natural grain, alfalfa meal and stuff like that.”

Otherwise, the herd exists on what the prairie reserve has to offer.

“They typically eat grass and brush,” he said. “They’re what we call browsers. That means they eat things like tree leaves and little tree shrubs plus grass.”

Because the buffalo are not browsers, they just eat the grass.

“Actually, the elk and buffalo go together,” Meier said. “They kind of need each other. It’s a balance of nature.”

Water is not a problem for the elk herd at the refuge because the prairie area is dotted with natural springs.

The full-grown males on the reserve are no lightweights. They can weigh as much as 1,000 pounds. A cow can weigh from 600 to 700 pounds. And the elk can live to be 10 to 12 years old.

The best time to see the elk at the refuge is during the winter.

“In the wintertime, they spend 20 percent of their time in the woods and 80 percent out in the open,” Meier said. “In the summertime, they spend most of their time in the woods and also in the wild-plum thickets and places like that.”

About two years ago, the herd reached 75 head, and the pack was reduced to about 30 to 40 to keep the numbers manageable.

The excess elk were transported into a 1.3 million-acre area managed by the Wildlife and Parks in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky.

“That was for free,” Meier said. “They didn’t pay us, but they pay any expenses. It’s very expensive to move the elk like that.”

Elk typically give birth in June, but neither visitors or the Meiers get to see the newborns.

“They’re down in the woods where it’s cool at that time of the year,” Della said. “You don’t see the babies until they come out in the wintertime-about December. And they’re about six months old by that time.”

Typical predators are coyote and bobcat who hunt the babies.

But Mother Nature also has a way of keeping the birth rate in balance at the refuge, Meier said.

“When we get up to that 75 mark, our numbers are reduced through birth. And when we lower that number, the birthrate goes back up. That’s the way it works so they don’t overproduce.”

Elk are members of the deer family, such as moose, caribou, mule deer and white-tailed deer.

The cows, calves and yearlings live in loose herds and the bulls tend to exist in bachelor groups or alone.

The rut occurs late September and early October. During that time, the cows and calves will form smaller groups, called harems, with one or two mature bulls. And yearling bulls often form bachelor groups or stay near the harems.

“One male can collect five to 10 females, and he’s usually dominant,” Meier said

The Meiers can hear the males’ vocalizations, called bugling, echoing across the refuge starting in September. The bulls are calling to the females during the rut.

According to the refuge newspaper, Maxwell has the largest herd of elk in Kansas on a refuge, and “as far as we know, it’s the only place to tour these reclusive animals in the state.”

Visitors can call 620-628-4455 for information and reservations.

There are also people in Kansas in the elk business who have private herds, Meier said.

A small wild-elk herd exists in Cimmaron National Grasslands in the southwest corner of the state.

North of the Maxwell refuge is another wild herd.

“It’s probably some of our elk that got out and some of them that have moved down here through the hunting,” Meier said.

The elk on the refuge are protected from hunters, but Meier said elk hunting has been opened for landowners in a certain section of the state.

This hunting section is north of the refuge along Kansas Highway 4, west to U.S. Highway 81, east to Kansas Highway 177 and north to the Nebraska border.

“So we’re just 14 miles off of that (southern) borderline here,” he said.

Meiers said he and Della have tasted elk meat, and they like it.

“It’s lean and very good eating,” he said. “It doesn’t have as much wild taste as deer.”

To contain the elk as much as possible on the Maxwell refuge, nine miles of wildlife fencing has been installed around the perimeter.

The current fence is made like a bed spring, so if the elk run into it, it gives and then bounces back and causes fewer injuries. It has to be 8 feet tall to hold the elk and prevent them from jumping it.

The buffalo would only require a 5- to 6-foot fence.

When an elk has to be killed at the refuge, it’s examined to determine the health of the herd.

“We have shot some out in the past,” Meier said. “They check the brain to see if there’s any disease. In the past, we’ve never come up with anything.”

The temperament of the elk is similar to the deer, Meier said. “The males are a little more docile-not as skeptical when you come up on them as the cows are.”

But after working for 10 years on the refuge, Meiers said there was one time when he and Della pushed the temperament of a bull that was only about 30 yards away.

“We were out hiking in the middle of the refuge, and we saw one in a pond down here,” Meier said. “We surprised him. We saw him, but he didn’t see us. We wanted to see how close we could get, and he got really upset.

“We were too close to him, and he grunted at us. It scared him, and he swam across the pond to get away from us. But before he left, he bellowed at us.”

Meier encourages nature enthusiasts to visit the refuge year round, but the best time to see the elk is now.

“They’re majestic and pretty to look at,” he said. “Having the elk here is a balance of nature. Any animal is a part of that balance, from a rattlesnake on.”

More from article archives
Back on track /Remote-control hobbyists find a bigger and better place to scratch their itch for com
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL The ground may not shake when engines rev...
Read More