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Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky is home to a rich diversity of native and non-native fish and wildlife

A wide variety of fish and wildlife species are found throughout Kentucky.

While most are native species, several notable desirable non-native species have been introduced into our woods and waters. There are also a few undesirable, non-native species that have taken up residency here.

Here’s some insight and details, based on information posted on the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) website:

• Naturalists don’t know for sure how many fish species were present in Kentucky at statehood in 1792. Documentation of the state’s fish fauna did not begin until about 1820.

Today, there are about 244 native fish species in Kentucky waters and about 22 non-native species that were either intentionally or accidentally stocked. There is one known extinct species, and seven presumed extirpated native species.

Yellowstone strain Cutthroat trout (Photo from National Parks Service)

The most recent non-native fish introduction was the Cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii), stocked for the first time on April 16.

The Cutthroat trout is a species native to cold-water tributaries of the Pacific Ocean, Rocky Mountains, and Great Basin in North America. There are 14 sub-species, two of which are extinct.

KDFWR personnel stocked 38,000 Cutthroat trout in the Cumberland River below Wolf Creek Dam.

The surplus Yellowstone strain Cutthroat trout were spawned and raised up to stocking size at the Norfork National Fish Hatchery in Arkansas. KDFWR crews stocked 5,100 trout at Bakerton, Ky., 21,600 at the ramp at Burkesville, Ky., and 11,300 at the Ky. 61 bridge, just downstream from Burkesville.

The trout-stocked averaged just over 6 inches long. Cutthroat trout have a distinctive orange slash on their lower jaw.

There’s a one-fish daily creel limit on Cutthroat trout and a 20-inch minimum size limit.

With a growth rate comparable to the Brown trout, it is likely it will take about five years, on average, for Cutthroat trout to reach 20 inches in Kentucky.

• Freshwater mussels are very important ecologically because their presence or absence is an indication of water quality and the health of streams.

Historically, in Kentucky waters, there were 98 recognized mussel species, plus two species that are represented by two subspecies.

This total of 100 native species is the fourth highest in the U.S., exceeded only by Alabama (187), Tennessee (137), and Georgia (126).

A total of 22 mussel species have disappeared from Kentucky, and of those, 12 are extinct globally.

KDFWR has an active program to protect, manage and restore populations of threatened and endangered mussels.

• There are 71 species of mammals, including both recent and historical observations.

Two notable native species are the white-tailed deer that was restored by KDFWR from remnant herds in western Kentucky, and the American black bear, that returned to eastern Kentucky through a combination on range expansion in the Appalachians, and protective regulations and management by KDFWR.

Kentucky’s native elk, the Eastern elk, was gone from the state by the 1880s, due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting. The Eastern elk was declared extinct in the U.S. by 1900.

The Rocky Mountain Elk (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

The Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni) lives in the Rocky Mountains of the western U.S. and has been transplanted extensively east of Mississippi River.

The Rocky Mountain Elk that roams the hardwood forests of eastern Kentucky today were established by a six-year introduction.

Beginning in 1997 through 2002, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife (KDFWR) employees live-trapped 1,547 elk from wild herds in Kansas, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, and North Dakota, and transported them by truck to eight stocking sites in Harlan, Knott, Leslie, Letcher, Martin, Perry and Pike counties.

The elk restoration zone covers 16 counties in southeastern Kentucky, about approximately 4.1 million acres.

Kentucky’s elk population began to increase rapidly following the last stocking in 2002 and by 2010, the project goal of 10,000 was reached. In the 2018-19 Elk Report KDFWR biologist estimated that Kentucky’s elk herd numbered about 13,100.

One unwanted mammal that is found in Kentucky, and throughout many southeastern states is the feral hog, often referred to as the wild pig, due to mixed ancestry.

Wild pigs (Sus scrofa) are not native to this country.

They were imported from Europe, first by Spanish explorers in the 1500s (for food), but now come from a variety of genetic origins.

Wild pigs pose a serious ecological, economic and disease threat, as they are mobile reservoirs for a host of parasitic, viral and bacterial infections.

The wild pigs in Kentucky are a result of illegal releases. It is illegal to possess, sell or transport wild pigs in Kentucky.

In recent years about 24 Kentucky counties have small, scattered populations of wild pigs. No counties have significant densities of wild pigs, with most areas only having a handful of sounders (family groups).

• There are 56 species of reptiles and 58 species of amphibians in Kentucky, including both recent and historical observations. Reptiles are turtles, snakes and skinks (lizards).

Eastern Box Turtle (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

Two common and widespread turtles are the Common Snapping Turtle and the Eastern Box Turtle.

Snappers are found in waterways throughout the state and can weigh more than 35 pounds, and the Eastern Box Turtle is a docile, long-lived land tortoise.

Kentucky has four species of venomous snakes and 29 species of non-venomous snakes.

The Five-Lined Skink (Eumeces fasciatus) is a common lizard, one of five species of skinks found in Kentucky.

Secretive, like most reptiles, the Fine-Lined Skink spends most of its time crawling under rocks, leaf debris or woodpiles, but on a warm spring day, the distinctively-marked reptile may be observed sunning itself.

Their preferred habitat is moist woodlands, but the Five-Lined Skink is sometimes found in suburban flower gardens and around the foundations of old garages, outbuildings or sheds.

Three native amphibians that are common and found throughout the state are the American Toad, Bullfrog and Spring Peeper.

• There are 370 species of birds, including both recent and historical observations.

Birds vary dramatically in size and habitats. They include waterfowl, raptors (mostly hawks and owls), pigeons, swallows, songbirds, hummingbirds, shorebirds, herons and game birds like the Mourning Dove, Bobwhite Quail and Wild Turkey.

Six species of woodpeckers nest in Kentucky — the Red-Headed Woodpecker, Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and Pileated Woodpecker.

In the late 1990s the Red-Cockaded Woodpecker, an endangered species, had a tenuous foothold in the pine forests of southern Daniel Boone National Forest, but today the species may not be present in the state.

The most infamous non-native bird might be the European Starling, at home in town and country. Starlings compete for nest sites with beloved Eastern Bluebird, and other cavity nesters.

Bald Eagle (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

The most high-profile bird species in Kentucky are arguably the Bald Eagle and Peregrine Falcon, resurrected from the brink of extinction by strict state and federal regulations, vigorous population monitoring, nest site protections and hacking projects.

One other bird to add this list is the resident Canada Goose, a huge wildlife management success story in Kentucky and other states in the Mississippi flyway.

Today, there are more than 1.8 million temperate-nesting Canada geese, the so-called resident geese, in the Mississippi Flyway, with a bulk of the population in Michigan and Minnesota.

These local geese are actually a subspecies. The Giant Canada Goose (Branta canadensis maxima) was thought to be extinct in North America. In 1962 a small flock of these birds was discovered wintering in Rochester, MN, by Harold Hanson of the Illinois Natural History Survey.

Birds propagated from this flock were used to establish Kentucky’s population.

Leg band returns show that Kentucky hunters take more geese banded locally, in Kentucky, than any other state, followed by birds banded in Indiana and Ohio. During prolonged cold snaps in the Great Lakes states, many local birds in the region migrate southward, in search of open water, into Kentucky.

Since the mid-1990s, when Kentucky’s resident goose population was first surveyed, the number of birds here doubled from 15,000 to 31,000 by 2013. Estimates of Kentucky’s flock have been in excess of 44,000 in recent years.

Kentuckians are blessed to have an incredible diversity of fish and wildlife species, and fall is the season to hunt, fish or just be outdoors, observing nature’s bounty.

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. 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 newspaper column.

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