Resource ChallengeThree hundred years ago, the Southern Appalachians were a place of mountains, oak savannahs, chestnut forests, and clear streams, where elk, bison, and white-tailed deer roamed in abundance. When European settlers arrived in the 1700s, they hunted without restraint. Bison were gone by 1800, followed by elk 50 years later. By 1900, even deer were scarce. In 1988, the Great Smokey Mountains National Park began to study the possibility of returning elk to their native range. A decade later, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation released seven elk onto reclaimed coal mining lands. More than 3,500 people, including hundreds of schoolchildren, watched as elk made tracks in Kentucky soil for the first time in seven generations. The state released another 1,500 elk at eight sites during the next five years.
Examples of Key Partners
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Kentucky and Tennessee natural resources and wildlife agencies, USDI Office of Surface Mining, USDA Forest Service, Tennessee Wildlife Federation, American Wildlife Conservation Partners, University of Tennessee, University of Kentucky, The Conservation Fund, Southeast Kentucky Tourism Development Association, Kentucky Coal Association, Friends of the Smokies, Campbell Outdoor Recreation Association, Middle Tennessee State University’s Offi ce of Instructional Technology and Center for Environmental Education.
Results and AccomplishmentsToday, east Kentucky’s elk population stands at about 5,500, and is growing by 15 percent annually. Tennessee has released 167 elk; Kentucky elk are already migrating there, mixing with and augmenting that population. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park began its experimental project in 2000, where the herd now stands at 60. In 2001, elk hunting returned to Kentucky for the fi rst time in 160 years. Since then, hunters have taken about 200 wild elk and could be harvesting up to 1,500 elk per year within five years. As people have realized the connection between elk and the amount of suitable habitat, new conservation efforts have sprung up, including land acquisitions, conservation easements, habitat improvement projects, and changes in land management policy. Kentucky has been revising reclamation guidelines for coal surface mines to encourage creation of elk-friendly habitat. State natural resource agencies, coal mining organizations, and 25 conservation groups have been working on the revisions. Elk are boosting local tourism, bringing economic development interests and rural communities into the partnership as they realize the need to conserve the habitat that supports the elk.