The Southeastern Elk Boom Success Story

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Do You Know This Tale?

Have you ever hunted Kentucky elk? (Shutterstock / Collins photo)

It was a warm September evening and the light was getting dim as Taylor and I made our way up the mountain to check for elk grazing on the ridgetops. Taylor knew where the elk would be, and when we got to a certain point his posture changed. He went from a relaxed walk to a tense quiet, and I swear I could see the hair rising on his neck. He took on that universal 6-inch hunker as he walked, where you hunch over 6 inches and walk on the sides of your feet, instinctively feeling it makes you silent and invisible.

We rounded the hill and Taylor pointed at a 5x5 bull grazing about 400 yards below. The bull was oblivious to us. A half-mile away, we could make out the silhouettes of about 25 elk coming out of the timber and spreading out across a ridgetop meadow. The herd of cows and calves zeroed in on us almost immediately. After a 2-minute standoff, they disappeared back into the timber. This scenario could have happened in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Arizona, New Mexico or any other western state. But we were in southeastern Kentucky.

First, Some History

Three hundred years ago, the southern Appalachians were a land of rolling hills, big blue mountains, deep woods, ridgetop balds, oak savannahs, fog-filled valleys, chestnut forests, vast canebrakes and clear streams. Elk, bison and whitetails roamed the region. Otters, wild turkeys, cougars, bears, wolves, red-cockaded woodpeckers and passenger pigeons called the area home.

But all that began to change in the 1700s, when white settlers were first drawn to this bounty. It took an appallingly short time for the guns and traps of market hunters to deplete this fabulous abundance. Settlers replaced forests and canebrakes with crops and cut trees for cabins, fences and firewood. They hunted for meat and hides to feed and clothe themselves and killed off as many predators as they could. Bison vanished from the region by 1800, and 50 years later elk did the same. Deer and turkeys were gone by 1900.

A century later, hunters stepped up to help state wildlife agencies restore some of these lost wildlife populations. The list of species restored in the past 40 years includes whitetails, wild turkeys, black bears, bald eagles, river otters, beavers and peregrine falcons. One of the most unlikely and most celebrated wildlife restoration stories has been the return of elk. On December 17, 1997, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Elk Foundation released seven wild elk onto reclaimed coal mining lands on the Addington Enterprises Wildlife Management Area in southeastern Kentucky. After that first release, the state released another 1,500 elk at eight different sites over the next five years.

Other Southern Herds

The success of the Kentucky elk restoration has caught the interest of other states in the southern Appalachians. Tennessee released 167 elk on the Cumberland Plateau beginning in December 2000. The experimental elk population in Great Smoky Mountains National Park now stands at about 60 animals.

It probably does not surprise anyone that elk have no respect for state sovereignty. As I write this story, Kentucky elk are grazing in Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, and have been documented roaming in North Carolina and Ohio. The future of elk in all of these states depends on the success of our efforts in Kentucky, Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Virginia and West Virginia have not committed to restoring elk yet, but the Elk Foundation is paying for a feasibility study in West Virginia and a similar study several years ago in Virginia.

Now that elk are back in the Appalachians, the Elk Foundation is mobilizing a conservation effort that will apply all of the tools we have used in the West to make sure elk and other wildlife never again disappear from North America's oldest mountains. The same forces that impact elk and other wildlife in other places are here in the mountains of Dixie, including habitat loss and fragmentation to subdivision and other development, habitat quality issues, herd population dynamics and public acceptance. The foundation's ultimate goal is to secure forever a series of core habitats linked together by viable travel corridors in the southern Appalachians. In our vision, these habitats will be brimming with robust elk populations that can be hunted and enjoyed for generations to come.

Having quality habitat is essential. (Shutterstock / Shelly Hauschel photo)

Coal, Land and Wildlife

Historically, Kentucky is the third largest coal-producing state in the country, with Wyoming and West Virginia holding the top spots. Surface mining for coal has a dramatic impact on the landscape and on the wildlife that live there, and some are adamantly opposed to it. Yet the coal industry is largely responsible for keeping eastern Kentucky "wild." The companies that mine coal have kept huge tracts of land intact that would have otherwise been sold and subdivided. The fact is, until we develop an alternative form of energy, the demand for coal will continue to increase and more mining will occur. As a wildlife conservationist, I have to admit that an active coal mine looks like the wrath of God. But I also believe that using responsible techniques can minimize the negative impacts of mining and maximize the benefits of reclamation. The Elk Foundation is committed to working with the coal industry and other partners to improve the situation and capture some real conservation opportunities.

In 1977, the Surface Mine Reclamation and Conservation Act became law, setting federal standards for coal mining and mine reclamation. It also allowed mining states to set standards that fit their local situations, thus giving the states "primacy" over their mining industries. Under the Act, a mining company must choose a "post-mining land use" for a site, which determines how it will be reclaimed and what will be planted there. Categories include hayland/pastureland, commercial forest, fish and wildlife, residential/commercial and industrial. The first three can provide some wildlife benefit if done properly. The other two obviously favor development. Eastern Kentucky's landscape has been described as 6-foot-wide ridgetops and 12-foot-wide valleys, with everything in between straight up and down. While this is an exaggeration, it isn't all that far off the mark. Because of this rugged terrain, significant parts of some eastern Kentucky towns are built on old coal mines, which are oftentimes the only flat ground around.

A Habitat Problem

From the late 1970s through much of the '90s, mine reclamation consisted of grading and compacting the site until the soil was as hard as concrete, then seeding the area with Kentucky 31 fescue and Serecea lespedeza to provide a layer of vegetation. Over the past 28 years, 300,000 to 400,000 acres in Kentucky have been reclaimed in this manner.

While these plants are great at controlling erosion, they are nearly useless for wildlife. Serecea lespedeza has a little redeeming value in that it can provide good security cover for rabbits and quail. Many years ago, agriculture researchers thought that Kentucky 31 fescue and Serecea lespedeza were two miracle forages that would hold the world together and be boons to agriculture. Over time, they have been proven to be undesirable for cattle and horse grazing and to be about as unpalatable for wildlife as kudzu and knapweed. In 1995, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Kentucky Division of Forestry and Kentucky Department of Surface Mining set new state standards for mine reclamation for wildlife, creating a list of plant species that excludes Kentucky 31 and Serecea. While this is an improvement, the guidelines for providing and managing wildlife habitat are still very general. For example, if I want to create habitat for quail and songbirds, I might do something very different than if I want to create habitat for deer. While the guidelines list dozens of grass, forb, shrub and tree species that provide a lot of flexibility, there is no guidance on what to plant and where to plant it. It would be like handing somebody a dictionary and then expecting them to write a best-selling novel just because they had a list of words.

Continuning to meet and exceed goals is important for the betterment of eastern elk herds. (Shutterstock / Tom Reichner photo)

Conservation Targets

The key to reaching this goal lies in understanding what makes Appalachian elk country tick.

Elk and other wildlife: By no means is this initiative strictly about elk. The Elk Foundation's efforts benefit all the wild critters roaming elk habitat, including deer, wild turkeys, ruffed grouse, bobwhite quail, golden-winged warblers and cerulean warblers (both are in trouble), to name just a few.

Grassland habitats: Much of the elk habitat in this country is grasslands created by surface mining. Some areas are long, narrow contour mines that, when reclaimed, create a strip of grassland about 200 yards wide along the side of a ridge. Other sites involve mountaintop removal mining-which forever removes the crown of a mountain-as well as other mountaintop mining techniques that return the mountain to its approximate original contour. These sites can cover hundreds or even thousands of acres, and when reclaimed with a mixture of desirable grasses, forbs, shrubs and trees, create high-quality wildlife habitat.

Forest habitats: The dense hardwood forests of Kentucky and Tennessee harbor more than 100 tree species that average 60 to 90 years old. But their value to wildlife is limited by their composition and structure. For much of the last 200 years, logging practices involved "high-grading," a form of selective harvest that takes most of the high-quality, desirable trees like oak and black cherry and leaves the poorly formed, low-grade trees like red maple, sweetgum and hemlock to grow into a new forest. These trees typically do not produce much food for wildlife. Often, clearcutting or aggressive timber harvesting is needed to remedy this situation.

In addition, a closed tree canopy blocks out all sunlight from the forest floor, leaving little for elk and deer to eat and scant cover for ground-nesting songbirds and wild turkeys. In an old-growth eastern hardwood forest, natural gaps in the canopy are created when trees die, which allows sunlight to reach the forest floor and sprout new vegetation. Rather than waiting 250 years for an old growth forest to form, wildlife managers can mimic an old growth forest structure and natural disturbances through selective logging and prescribed burning.

Habitat fragmentation and loss: About 95 percent of the land in the  Kentucky elk restoration zone is privately owned. One day it will be threatened by subdivision and other development. We must move now to protect this wild country forever before it is too late.

Public access: Hunting, hiking, elk-viewing and other forms of outdoor recreation are crucial to the future economic well-being of eastern Kentucky. Coalfields are the last vast expanses of undeveloped country left here, yet there are limited opportunities for the public to enjoy this incredible resource. Currently there is not one place in eastern Kentucky open to the general public where I can send somebody to see elk.

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Editor's Note: This was originally published August 18, 2005.

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