Art Lander’s Outdoors: A look back at 20 years since inception of Kentucky’s elk restoration project

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This is the first in an occasional series of articles on elk in Kentucky, in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the elk restoration project. 

The end-of-the-year holiday celebrations have a special significance this year as it was 20 years ago this December 18th that Kentucky’s elk restoration project began.

The return of elk to the mountains of eastern Kentucky has had an immense social, economic and cultural impact, and is the realization of the vision to create hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities, with economic benefits from tourism to rural communities in the region. 

The resounding success of this largest wildlife restoration project ever attempted in the eastern U.S. has garnered national attention and kudos for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), who financed a majority of the project.

The return of elk to the mountains of eastern Kentucky has had an immense social, economic and cultural impact, and is the realization of the vision to create hunting and wildlife viewing opportunities, with economic benefits from tourism to rural communities in the region. (Photo provided)

Here’s some insight into the beginnings of elk restoration in Kentucky, with some quotes from a taped interview that aired recently on Kentucky Educational Television (KET):

• 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. 

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.

The elk that were stocked in Kentucky during the six-year restoration project were Rocky Mountain elk (Cervus canadensis nelsoni), a subspecies found in the Rocky Mountains and adjacent ranges of western North America.

• In 1996 wildlife biologists and administrators with KDFWR, and members of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, began to discuss, then study the feasibility of re-introducing elk to reclaimed coal mined lands in eastern Kentucky.

Tom Bennett, who was KDFWR commissioner, said that it seemed like “a crazy idea at the time.” 

There was many unanswered questions, including: 1) How would the project be financed? 2) Was there enough suitable habitat? and 3) Would the public support the idea?

Some of the first elk released in Kentucky were fitted with radio transmitter collars so that their daily movements could be monitored. (Photo provided)

• From the first studies by biologists and public meetings across the region, until the first elk hit the ground, was a relatively short window — about 18 months.

“It seemed like everything just came together at the same time,” said Bennett.

Doug Hensley, of Hazard, a member of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the late Tom Baker, state chairman for the RMEF in Kentucky, are credited with the idea for the restoration project.

Hensley ultimately asked Baker if the RMEF would provide financing. 

“We took a group from RMEF headquarters in Montana, and (mining engineer) John Tate drove us around a mine site,” said Hensley. “They said this will work. Tom went back to the board, presented the proposal, and they wrote us a check.”

Mountain tops and hillsides that had been strip mined, when reclaimed by grading and seeding, create 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, to elk habitat in the mountain west.

Roy Grimes, who was director the Wildlife Division for KDFWR, said he believed it would take a minimum of one million acres. 

An aerial assessment of the region by biologist John Phillips found about three million acres of habitat suitable for elk.

Ultimately, Kentucky’s “elk zone” would grow to include lands in 16 counties, about 3.5  million acres from Martin to McCreary counties. The goal was to repopulate elk in an area that’s roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park.

• There were other barriers to the project that needed to be addressed and discussed, both internally and publicly. 

“The (staff) stayed in good contact with the public on what we were doing,” said Grimes. “There was a science issue, would the elk survive problems with parasites. And we knew the public would be concerned about competition with livestock, (and potential damage to) crop lands and fences.”

The elk that would be stocked in Kentucky would have to pass rigorous disease testing. 

• With all the questions answered on the feasibility of re-in-introducing elk, Grimes presented the idea to the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission.

“They said let’s pursue it further, see what the public thinks,” said Grimes. “Get some hard numbers.”

Kentuckians responded positively. 

“We were very pleased with the strong public support,” said Grimes. “From the 1,300 responses from eastern Kentucky folks, they were 99 percent in favor.”

Of the 3,300 total responses statewide, 90 percent were in support of releasing elk.

On December 18, 1997 a crowd of more than 3,000 persons gathered at CyprusAmax WMA, near Ary, Kentucky, in Perry County, to witness the release of the first seven elk. It was a historic moment in wildlife conservation in Kentucky. (Photo provided)

• With a green light given to the project, the hard work began.

The first release was the toughest, from a logistics standpoint. Trapping and shipping elk back to Kentucky was not an easy proposition. 

“We went to states that had surplus animals or animals that were in places that couldn’t be hunted to the population levels they wanted,” said KDFWR biologist Dan Crank.

For the crews of elk “wranglers” the days were long and the work was done in bone-chilling cold.

“We set up the traps January through early March,” said Crank. “We stayed where the elk were held, and checked the traps every day. There were no remote cameras.”

Sometimes they would drive for hours one-way to get to the trap site. “If there were elk in the trap, we would load them, re-bait the traps, and drive back,” said Crank. “We’d leave in the morning and by the time we got back it would be four or five o’clock in the afternoon. And then we had to care for the elk, feed and water them.”

The elk had to be held for several days to go through disease testing. 

A semi tractor trailer load was 70 elk. “It might a week or two or three weeks to get a load,” said Crank.

The traps were set up on elk wintering grounds.

“The traps were 10-foot by 10-foot gate pounds (corrals),” said Crank. “We put 10 traps together in a circle,”

Each trap had a door opening and a trip wire. When an elk tripped the wire, a door shut behind them. “It was random, you could catch two elk or 15. You just don’t know,” said Crank.

• Elk were obtained from six western states.

Some states were happy to help in Kentucky’s restoration efforts.  “They were very eager to give us elk,” said Bennett.

From 1997 through 2002, 1,547 elk were live-trapped from wild herds in Kansas, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, and North Dakota, and transported by truck to eight stocking sites in Kentucky.

The final price tag for the project was $4 million from the RMEF, combined with $1 million from the KDFWR.

• On December 18, 1997 a crowd of more than 3,000 persons gathered at CyprusAmax WMA, near Ary, Kentucky, in Perry County, to witness the release of the first seven elk.

It was a historic moment in wildlife conservation in Kentucky.

“We’re restoring another native species,” Bennett said to the assembled crowd. “We welcome these new guests to our ecological community.” 

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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