WINFIELD — On a cold December night, Sam Schultz was deep in the Ozarks, waiting for the elk to come.
Schultz had been planning the trip for months, one of just five hunters to win a tag to hunt elk in Missouri this year. He broke his hand last time he hunted the giants. He had nine days this time. But the dense woods had not, so far, given him the shot he wanted.
Then, that night, his wife heard the animal’s distinctive bugle.
This was the first year the state sanctioned an elk hunt in at least a century, if not ever. The towering ungulates were driven to local extinction more than 100 years ago, as Ozark forest habitat, a key timber source for the transcontinental railroad, was destroyed by commercial logging. Missouri wildlife was being decimated then, much the way buffalo famously disappeared from the Great Plains.
“There really were few, if any, regulations,” said Joe Jerek, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Conservation. “We were down to a few hundred deer in the whole state, a few hundred turkeys in the whole state.”
Elk vanished, too, until 2011, when about 50 were trapped in Kentucky and brought to Shannon County, in southern Missouri, to begin reintroduction efforts.
The animals have caught on in the Ozarks. Before allowing the species to be hunted, state wildlife officials said the population had to satisfy three conditions: a minimum of 200 animals, an annual herd growth rate of 10% or more, and a ratio of at least four females for every bull elk.
Schultz, a 43-year-old union carpenter from Winfield and a lifelong hunter, said he didn’t believe he had won one of the coveted slots. “I’ve got some pretty cruel friends,” he said.
The state gave the five winners two opportunities — a nine-day bow hunting season in the fall, followed by this month’s nine-day rifle season.
Schultz had shot an elk 20 years ago in Colorado. Hunting in Missouri was completely different — and more difficult, he said. In the West, a wide-open landscape allows hunters to spot elk from afar and makes it easier to get off clean shots. Those courtesies don’t extend to the Ozarks.
“It’s basically solid woods down there,” said Schultz.
And conditions for the October bow season were rough, said Schultz. It was rainy and hot, with temperatures in the 80s. Then, on the morning of the fifth day, Schultz fell crossing a creek and broke his hand on the rocks.
None of the state’s five hunters harvested one of the animals then.
Their luck changed in December.
Schultz saw a few bulls on the first day, but passed on them. He hunted largely on foot.
Then, on the night of Dec. 14, his wife, at a cabin, heard the telltale call of an elk — the bugle.
The next morning, Schultz set up in a nearby blind, a structure meant to hide him from the animals.
And as the day drew to a close, a bull appeared, about 60 yards away.
It was a clean kill, and began snowing shortly afterward, Schultz said.
The elk’s antlers had five points on one side and six on the other.
Schultz split the elk meat with Ron and Sandy Morton, the local landowners who allowed him to hunt on their property. The animal was not officially weighed, but Schultz estimates it tipped the scales at about 850 pounds — enough to leave him with a couple hundred pounds of meat. “It’s comparable to a half a side of beef,” he said.
The experience was even more special because his son, Jimmy, 15, was able to join him.
The state Department of Conservation’s goal is for Missouri’s herd to eventually reach 500, said Jerek, the spokesman. Opportunities for hunting are expected to climb along with the population.
“Hopefully, as that number of elk grow, the number of permits we issue will grow with that,” said Jerek.
All five rifle hunters took an elk this month.
Schultz imagined, after the species’ reintroduction years ago, that elk hunting would eventually return.
But he says now that he didn’t think he would be around to see it — let alone play a role in it.
“It’s pretty exciting,” said Schultz, “especially in your home state.”