MEMPHIS, Mo. -- At precisely 3:31 a.m. Oct. 12, a trail camera at Hickory Hill Hunts northeast of Memphis detected some motion in a dark patch of forest.
An electronic flash erupted, and the unmanned camera automatically snapped a photo.
Michael Collins, the conservation agent for Scotland County, could hardly believe his eyes when he saw a copy of the black-and-white picture. It showed a young bull elk wandering through the woods.
"There's no mistaking it was an elk," Collins said. "It's just one of those things that you don't expect to see in Scotland County."
Elk were almost extinct in Missouri for about 150 years until the Missouri Department of Conservation launched a program in 2011 to reintroduce the animals from Kentucky.
However, the program involved releasing several dozen elk in the southeastern corner of the state. Those animals have tracking collars, and their whereabouts are monitored.
"They're a long ways away from here," Collins said, expressing his doubts that one of the imported elk could have found its way to Northeast Missouri. "But anything is possible."
After the Scotland County elk surfaced last month, Collins started checking around. He knew of a couple of elk ranches in neighboring Schuyler County and Clark County, and he contacted both.
"None of them are missing any elk," he said.
Since the elk photo was snapped, Collins said he still hasn't heard any reports of an elk missing from anywhere in Missouri.
This makes him wonder whether the elk is wild.
"That's what I'm leaning toward right now," he said. "I'd say if it is wild, it's probably just a migrant that's trying to find new territory. There's just no conclusive evidence."
Collins said he received one other call from a Scotland County resident who reported seeing a similar-looking animal. However, the resident had no proof to back up the sighting -- unlike the "smoking gun" photo provided by Hickory Hill Hunts, an outfitter that provides opportunities for hunters to go after white-tailed deer, turkey and other game on privately owned, leased property.
Elk is a protected species and cannot be legally hunted in Missouri. Now that the state's deer-hunting season has opened, Collins is hoping a deer hunter won't inadvertently shoot the wandering elk, which carries a big rack on its head.
Collins doesn't think any knowledgeable hunters would mistake the elk for a deer. "But I guess stranger things have happened," he said.
Collins is still investigating the elk case and would like to learn more about the animal's origins. He said if anyone in the region spots an elk, he or she should call a conservation agent.