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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky’s Elk Herd a “Seed Crop” for Appalachia, other herds outside the region

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In Colonial America elk were common east of the Mississippi River.

The eastern elk (Cervus canadensis canadensis), which was native to Kentucky, was one of six subspecies of elk that inhabited the northern and eastern U.S., and southern Canada.

The eastern elk was larger than its western cousins. A full-grown bull could weigh up to 1000 pounds, stand 50-60 inches tall at the shoulder, and carry a rack of antlers six feet in length.

Between 2001-2002, the National Park Service released 52 elk into the Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in North Carolina (Photo provided)

Unregulated hunting and habitat loss wiped out elk in Kentucky by the mid-1800s. Naturalist John James Audubon observed that by 1851 a few elk could still be found in the Allegheny Mountains but that they were virtually gone from the remainder of their range.

The last eastern elk was shot in Pennsylvania on September 1, 1877. The subspecies was declared extinct by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1880.

In the 1990s wildlife biologists, administrators with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), and members of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, working with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), began to study the feasibility of re-introducing elk to reclaimed coal mined land in Eastern Kentucky.

Mountain tops and hillsides that had been strip mined, when reclaimed by grading and seeding, created islands of grass, shrubs and forbs, surrounded by vast woodlands. This habitat, a mix of forest and open land, is very similar, but much more fertile, that the habitat where Rocky Mountain elk thrive in the mountain west.

So the largest wildlife restoration project ever attempted was undertaken, with $4 million in financial support from the RMEF, combined with $1 million from the KDFWR. The goal was to repopulate elk in an area that’s roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park.

From 1997 through 2002, 1,547 elk were live-trapped from wild herds in Utah, Arizona, Oregon, North Dakota, and Kansas, and transported by truck to eight stocking sites in a 16-county, 3.5 million-acre “elk zone,” that extends from Martin to McCreary counties in eastern Kentucky.

Kentucky’s elk restoration was the largest ever attempted, funded by $4 million from the RMEF, combined with $1 million from the KDFWR. The goal was to repopulate elk in an area that’s roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park. (Photo provided)

The elk responded to their new homes with unheard of productivity, including higher body weights, faster antler development, 90 percent breeding success rate and 92 percent calf survival. Herds thrived in Kentucky’s mild winters, abundant food and the absence of cougars, and other large predators.

Today, Kentucky’s elk herd is the largest east of the Mississippi River. The showcase herd of about 10,000 bulls, cows and calves, first hunted in 2001, has become the “seed crop” for Appalachia, through natural range expansion and/or stockings.

Elk from Kentucky’s elk zone and a captive herd in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (LBL), were also stocked to re-establish, or bolster existing herds, outside the region.

Here’s a look at Kentucky’s footprint on elk restoration, based on information provided by RMEF:

Virginia

In 2010 the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries adopted an active elk restoration program.

Elk had been migrating into western Virginia since Kentucky’s elk restoration project began in 1997.

Between 2012-2014, 71 elk were live trapped in Kentucky and released near Vansant, in Buchanan County, the only county in Virginia that adjoins two states — Pike County in Kentucky, and McDowell County in West Virginia.

Today, the elk herd estimate in 160. The project goal is to establish a herd of 400.

West Virginia

In 2005, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR), with RMEF funding, completed a study to evaluate habitat potential and social feasibility of restoring elk to the Mountain State. The reintroduction of elk in Kentucky and the subsequent migration of elk into West Virginia, prompted the WVDNR to develop an elk management plan for the state.

A seven-county area in the Southern Coal Fields Region including Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Wyoming and the southern portion of Boone, Lincoln and Wayne counties, was chosen as the elk management zone.

In 2016, 24 elk live trapped in Kentucky were released on the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area.

Tennessee

For more outdoors news and information, see Art Lander’s Outdoors on KyForward.

In the late 1990s the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) began working on an elk restoration plan, eventually establishing a 670,000-acre elk zone.

Between 2000-2003, 201 elk were released onto six wildlife management areas on the Cumberland Mountain Plateau, in Anderson, Campbell, Scott and Morgan counties.

The elk stocked in Tennessee, which were first hunted in 2009, are the subspecies (Cervus elaphus manitobensis), from the Elk Island National Park (EINP) in Alberta, Canada. The EINP elk herd is considered one of the best sources of wild disease free elk on the continent.

In 2008 an additional 34 elk were stocked. These elk came from LBL’s Elk and Bison Prairie, a 700-acre prairie demonstration area. The elk in LBL’s captive herd originated from EINP.

With RMEF funding TWRA biologists are conducting habitat enhancement programs to benefit elk, including periodic prescribed burns to restore oak woodland and savanna habitat.

Today, Tennessee’s elk herd has grown to more than 400. The long-term goal is to grow the herd to 1,400 to 2,000 elk.

North Carolina

Between 2001-2002, the National Park Service (NPS) released 52 elk into the Cataloochee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).

Both stockings (25 elk in 2001 and 27 in 2002) came from LBL’s captive herd.

Today, an estimated 150 wild elk roam on land managed by the NPS, North Carolina Wildlife Resources, and the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians.

RMEF helped finance a project to outfit elk with radio collars to study the population, it’s range and the rutting and calving areas of elk outside the GSMNP. The study will aid the state in developing a long-term management plan for North Carolina’s elk population including options for establishing a huntable population outside GSMNP.

Between 2015-2016, elk restoration efforts were expanded in Wisconsin, with the establishment of a second herd, when 73 elk from Kentucky’s herd were released into the Black River State Forest in Jackson County (Photo provided)

Wisconsin

Elk once inhabited at least 50 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, but unregulated hunting and heavy timbering caused the loss of the herd by 1868.

In the ensuing century, wildlife managers attempted several introductions. In 1913 and 1917, elk from Yellowstone National Park were released into an area near Trout Lake, but the restoration failed to take root.

Then in 1995, 25 elk from Michigan’s wild herd were stocked into Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, near Clam Lake, Wisconsin.

Between 2015-2016, elk restoration efforts were expanded with the establishment of a second herd 120 miles to the south, when 73 elk from Kentucky’s herd were released into the Black River State Forest in Jackson County.

The long-term population goal is 390 elk. Today, about 230 wild elk are present in the two herds.

Missouri

Elk returned to the Ozark Mountains in 2011 when the Missouri Department of Conservation began a three-year restoration project, releasing 107 elk from Kentucky to the Peck Ranch Conservation Area, in south central Missouri. The public land is at the heart of a 221,440 acre elk restoration zone that encompasses parts of Carter, Reynolds and Shannon counties.

The long-term goal is to grow the herd to 400 to 500 elk, using hunting as a tool to manage the size of the elk herd.

The resounding success of Kentucky’s elk restoration project enabled other states in the region to bring back an important wildlife species absent for more than 150 years.

The return of the elk to the eastern U.S. adds another valuable and important species to North America’s natural ecosystem.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for NKyTribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors column.

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