As a flurry of new elk restoration projects unfold in the eastern U.S., the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is looking in on the herds and hunting opportunities that it was helping to establish one decade ago.
In 2002, Kentucky, Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park were busy relocating elk and establishing their first wild herds in more than a century.
Today, those historic efforts are cycling again with new elk populations now on the ground in Missouri and Virginia, a feasibility study continuing in Maryland, and public sentiment growing for returning elk to West Virginia.
“Ten years ago, RMEF was amid the first great wave of energy for restoring elk to eastern states,” said David Allen, RMEF president and CEO. “We helped re-establish a small herd in Wisconsin in 1995. And then came a big surge of interest in returning elk to other parts of their native range in the East. Between 1996 and 2002, we helped relocate nearly 1,800 elk, some in places where a wild elk hadn’t been seen since the Civil War.”
He added, “For several years that followed, CWD concerns pushed the pause button on elk restoration. But now we’re seeing a resurgence helped by now established source herds in the East.”
Then and now, RMEF provides state and provincial wildlife agencies with financial and technical assistance for their elk restoration efforts.
Funding comes from RMEF volunteer-hosted fundraisers, membership drives, partners and donors. Volunteers and RMEF staff also provide essential labor.
Project phases regularly supported by RMEF include assessing habitat, measuring local public support, capturing and transplanting elk from healthy source herds across North America, monitoring herd health and assisting with ongoing habitat enhancement, research and management.
“We hope this second great wave of eastern elk restoration projects goes as well as the first,” added Allen. “Twenty years ago, elk were not part of the Southern Appalachian landscape. Today, they’re found from West Virginia to North Carolina.”
Here’s a current look at the herds that were benefitting from RMEF involvement in 2002:
Kentucky—RMEF helped release 1,547 elk into Kentucky during 1997-2002. Now with approximately 10,000 elk, the state boasts the East’s showcase herd. Nuisance complaints over the past several years have remained stable. In 2011, for the state’s eleventh elk hunt, 800 hunting permits were available (200 bull and 600 antlerless), and participating hunters harvested 551 elk and achieved a success rate of 65 percent. For 2012, the state has added another 100 permits. Non-hunting elk mortalities investigated in 2011 were attributed to brainworm (29), road-killed (25), unknown/other (13) and poaching (9). The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KFWR) and University of Kentucky are specifically researching causes of bull mortality. In 2011-12, with support from RMEF, more than 100 bulls were captured and fitted with GPS tracking collars.
To date, RMEF has helped fund 31 projects supporting elk restoration in Kentucky with a total value of more than $6.1 million.
Tina Brunjes, deer and elk coordinator for KFWR, said, “RMEF has been invaluable to the elk project in Kentucky from the very beginning. Now that we’ve restored this great animal, RMEF’s support of research like the bull mortality study is critical to the ongoing success of our elk management program.”
Tennessee—RMEF helped release 201 elk into Tennessee during 2000-2008. The state’s elk herd continues to grow slowly with now approximately 400 animals. Elk have become a popular attraction at Hatfield Knob Wildlife Viewing Area, where several thousand visitors come to watch elk. Tennessee held its third elk hunt in 2011. Five bull permits were allotted and three bulls were taken. For 2012, a sixth bull permit was allotted for one youth hunter. Destructive feral hogs have become a habitat concern and controlling their numbers in the elk restoration zone is now the No. 1 priority of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). Also new is an ambitious habitat plan for the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area where managers hope to improve elk forage with prescribed fire across 10,000 acres over the next 10 years.
To date, RMEF has helped fund 13 projects supporting elk restoration in Tennessee with a total value of more than $1.2 million.
Steve Bennett, wildlife biologist and elk restoration leader for TWRA, said, “TWRA and its many partners in elk restoration continue to work hard to develop habitat for elk and other wildlife. RMEF and its volunteers are providing critical support. Just like the first elk release in the state in 2000, we couldn’t develop a growing herd today without them.”
Great Smoky Mountains—RMEF helped release 52 elk into the North Carolina section of the national park during 2001-2002. Today the herd numbers approximately 140 animals. Elk watching has become a major draw for park visitors. Studies show significant local economic benefits from elk-related tourism in the park’s Cataloochee Valley. There is no hunting inside the park. However, small herds have expanded onto North Carolina state lands and Eastern Band of the Cherokee tribal lands adjoining the park. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission is currently assessing habitat and feasibility of establishing elk herds to state lands outside of park boundaries. As a result, limited hunting opportunities could arise in the future.
To date, RMEF has helped fund 8 projects supporting elk restoration in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a total value of more than $1.3 million.
Joe Yarkovich, wildlife biologist for Great Smoky Mountains National Park, said, “As the small elk herd that RMEF helped to establish continues to grow and expand its range both inside and outside of park boundaries, interest from both managers and the general public continues to climb. The Smoky Mountain elk population has become a small herd with a very big future.”
RMEF also helped relocate approximately 443 elk and establish new herds in parts of Ontario from 1998-2001. Other eastern herds, primarily in Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota, were restored prior to RMEF (thanks to leadership, labor and funding from hunters) although RMEF is heavily invested in elk and habitat conservation efforts in each of those states.
Image courtesy Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation