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Art Lander’s Outdoors: A look at Kentucky’s elk population; facts about elk seasons from 2017-2019


Editor’s note: This is the third article in an occasional series on elk in Kentucky.

Elk (Cervus canadensis) in North America are divided into six subspecies by biologists, two which are extinct.

According to a post on the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (REMF) website, more than 10 million elk roamed nearly all of the U. S. and parts of Canada, prior to European settlement.

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

Today, about one million elk live in the western U. S., Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina, and in Canada, from Ontario province westward. Elk live in a variety of habitats including: rainforests, alpine meadows, dry desert valleys and hardwood forests.

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

The Roosevelt elk (Cervus canadensis roosevelti) is confined to the Coastal Pacific Northwest and has the largest body size.

The Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) has the smallest body size of all the subspecies, and the range of the Manitoban elk (Cervus canadensis manitobensis) includes the northern Great Plains.

The two extinct subspecies are the Merriam’s elk (Cervus canadensis merriami), whose former range was the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, and the Eastern elk (Cervus canadensis canadensis), which was found only east of the Mississippi River.

Kentucky’s Elk Program

The Rocky Mountain Elk that roam the hardwood forests of eastern Kentucky were established by a six-year restoration program. Eastern elk were native to Kentucky but were eradicated by the 1880s, due to habitat loss and unregulated hunting.

From 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 now numbered about 13,100.

The Rocky Mountain Elk that roam the hardwood forests of eastern Kentucky were established by a six-year restoration program. (Photo courtesy of RMEF)

A Look Back at Kentucky’s Elk Seasons 2017-18

Here’s some details of the past two elk seasons:

• During the 2017-18 elk season in Kentucky, 335 elk were taken by hunters — 185 male elk (55.2 percent), and 150 female elk (44.8 percent).

Archers bagged 63 elk, firearms hunters 240 elk, two elk were taken with muzzleloaders, and 30 elk were bagged with crossbows.

The hunter success rate for firearms bull elk hunters was 64 percent, and 48 percent for archery bull elk hunters. The hunter success rate for archery cow elk hunters was 28 percent, and 47 percent for firearms cow elk hunters.

Elk were taken in 14 Kentucky counties. The top five counties in terms of elk harvest were: Knott, 65; Leslie, 50; Martin, 42; Perry, 41, and Breathitt, 31.

• During the 2018-19 elk season in Kentucky, 368 elk were taken by hunters — 196 male elk (53.3 percent), and 172 female elk (46.7 percent).

Archers bagged 59 elk, firearms hunters 271 elk, and 38 elk were bagged with crossbows.

Elk were taken in 14 Kentucky counties. The top five counties in terms of elk harvest were: Knott, 70; Leslie, 56; Martin, 50; Pike, 39, and Perry, 35.


The Tule elk (Cervus canadensis nannodes) has the smallest body size of all the four subspecies of elk. (Photo from Wikipedia Commons)

• The past two seasons the number of elk tags awarded was 700 (250 bull and 450 cow), and the allotment among tag types was: 150 firearms permits and 100 archery/crossbow permits for bulls, and 290 firearms permits and 160 archery/crossbow permits for cow elk.

• Since elk hunting began, elk behavior has changed dramatically.

In a 2018 KDFWR news release, Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk program coordinator said, “our elk herd is strong and healthy, however the herd dynamics have changed in recent years. Hunters will have to work to be successful and time spent scouting will greatly increase chances for success.”

Hunter success rates have been high since hunting began in 2001, but have declined somewhat in recent years as more elk have moved into remote woodland areas, to feed on hard mast, and escape hunting pressure in open areas.

Kentucky’s 2019 Elk Season

• This will be the 19th year Kentucky’s elk herd has been hunted.

The number of permits available in the 2019 elk hunt drawing are: bull firearm, 150; cow firearm, 244; archery/crossbow (either sex), 175, and youth only, 25.

The archery/ crossbow season dates are: Week 1: Sept. 14 – 27, 2019 and Week 2: Dec. 7-13, 2019.

The bull (antlered) firearm season dates are: Week 1: Sept. 28 – Oct. 2, 2019 and Week 2: Oct. 5-9, 2019.

The cow (antlerless) firearm season dates are: Week 1: Nov. 30- Dec. 4, 2019 and Week 2: Dec. 28-Jan. 1, 2020.

Additionally, there are four categories of special elk tags awarded, including Commission, Landowner Access, Youth, and Late Season. A maximum of 10 percent of elk permits are awarded to non-residents.

For complete information on elk in Kentucky visit KDFWR’s website at fw.ky.gov.

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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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