As the first rays of an approaching sunrise poked through the darkness, I could see a cow elk grazing along the top of a ridge a several hundred yards away. As more light filled the hollows, several other elk were spotted, slowly but certainly making their way to the top of the same ridge for an extra snack before heading in search of a cool spot in the woods to bed. Suddenly and without warning, the roar of a helicopter cresting the ridge behind us shattered the moment. It passed overhead and made its way to the same ridge the cows were on. This wasn’t a hunt gone wrong, but more of an ongoing project. It wasn’t taking place in Colorado, Utah or Arizona as one might naturally expect. This was the Bluegrass State, Kentucky of all places.
The plan to reintroduce elk into the southeast portion of the state became credible when in 1997, seven elk from Kansas were introduced to their new home. The last indigenous elk to occupy this same area were killed about 150 years previously. Another 1,550 elk were released over the next four years. The herd has grown exponentially since then. According to Jon Gassett, PhD and Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, the elk placed here came from Utah, North Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Kansas, and at times involved trading Kentucky Eastern wild turkey and striped bass. Jon is credited with accelerating and pushing Kentucky’s Elk Restoration Project.
With a large assist from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, lead by local RMEF officials Tom Bennett, VP of governmental affairs for the RMEF, and David Ledford, the RMEF initiative director, Kentucky now boasts the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi. Dr. Karen Alexy, Kentucky Dept of Fish and Wildlife biologist, came to the project in 1999 and has somewhat taken a personal stake in the restoration. She basically lives her life amid the reclaimed mines that the elk call home near Hazard, Kentucky. A portion of her work in the spring involves capturing elk calves, measuring, weighing, drawing a small amount of blood, and then placing an electronic tracking collar on the two- or three-day-old animals. This is where the helicopter comes in.
A biologist in the copter locates a herd of elk. Then with the use of an infrared scope, locates the calves hiding in the grass. The calf’s main defense is that it is scent free. Once a calf is spotted, the copter radios a ground crew consisting of RMEF volunteers, RMEF officials, Kentucky conservation officers, and of course, Dr. Karen. They then race along the dirt roads of the reclaimed mines in pick-ups and SUVs to get as close as possible to the hidden calf. Usually the train of vehicles can get within several hundred yards, but at other times the group is in for a long walk uphill. As directions to the animal are given to a leader from the helicopter, the group closes in and tries to encircle the animal. Most of the calves captured never tried to get up and run. Most stayed perfectly still hoping we’d pass right by. At least one, however, that was estimated to be about five days old gave its captors a good run for their money through one of the few marshy areas in the region. Several of the volunteers were either soaked or covered with mud, but the animal was caught, collared, measured, and released unharmed. More often than not, the mother of the calf will leave the area, both for her own safety as well as not to draw attention to her young. Within minutes of being released, the young calves are back at their mother’s side.
My Elk Experience
During my weekend with the DNR and the RMEF volunteers, we managed to capture, record and release 10 calves ranging in weight from 30 to 70 pounds. More than 40 calves were captured and collared. A seemingly odd number, but that was the number of collars Dr. Karen had available. The collared animals will be tracked and studied for several years. Their dispersion patterns and how they adapt to their new environment will provide valuable information that can be used to better understand the animals here, and can be transferred to other states considering an elk restoration according to Dr. Karen. The goal of the project beyond returning the animals to the area is to try and create the ideal elk habitat, trying along the way to determine what exactly are the most critical habitat needs for elk.
Check the Kentucky DNR website to learn how to apply for the draw. The hunts in the 16-county, 3,000,000-acre restoration area began in 2001 with tags for six bulls and six cows, all of which were filled. With little to no real predation in Kentucky, the herd is expected to easily and rapidly reach goals.
Work has also begun, trying to change the methods of mine reclamation. At one time, once the earth was refilled, pass after pass was made with a compactor. Ay type of vegetation had a difficult time taking root in the concrete-like ground. Now only a couple of passes are made and grasses both wild and planted, along with shrubs and trees, sprout quickly in the loose soil. This not only offers the elk shelter and food, but also prevents a lot of the wash-out with the original method during heavy rains. Areas that might have remained barren for years, now green up in no time with these new methods, offering more habitat for the burgeoning elk herd. The majority of these new techniques and methods not only benefits the elk herd but also every other living creature in the region. As Dr. Karen put it, “It’s an ecological rebirth.”