Strip Mines into Elk Habitat

In a story that again shows that mother nature can be much more resilient than some people imagine, for the first time in over maybe 170 years or more, a large wild elk herd roams the Appalachian woods in significant numbers. 

I am not talking about the elk reintroduced in small number into Great Smoky National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, where they have been a major tourist attraction. Only 52 elk were introduced in 2001 and 2002. The current Smoky Park population is said to be around a hundred animals

I am talking about the as many as 10,000 elk that freely roam in Eastern Kentucky today. It is interesting to compare the large amounts of publicity the small-scale reintroduction of elk by the federal government in a National Park has received to the fact that stories of the much larger-scale reintroduction of elk into eastern Kentucky have mostly been confined to the regional news and to hunting magazines and websites. That is almost certainly because the Kentucky elk habitat consists of abandoned strip mines, and the elk were placed there by those who seek to preserve wildlife habitat because they are hunters. Such facts don't fit the media narrative about who the guys in the white hats should be in feel-good stories about the environment

Whenever time allows, I prefer driving across the country on back roads to flying. Two years ago, while driving across the coal country of Eastern Kentucky on my way from North Carolina to Minnesota, I was astounded to see a traffic warning sign with a picture of not a deer, but an elk! At my next stop, I asked the attendant about it. Elk had been reintroduced to the area ten years earlier and were doing what elk do, which is produce baby elk. The animals had become a very dangerous local traffic hazard. While encounters weren't that numerous, elk are several times the size of the native white-tailed deer, and a collision with one can easily destroy a car.  

When I checked it out online, I read an amazing success story about land reclamation. It was a 1997 joint project of the state of Kentucky and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to introduce elk onto abandoned strip mining land in eastern Kentucky. The original population of eastern elk subspecies largely disappeared before the mid-1800s and was declared extinct in 1880. Coal companies are required by law to return strip mines to a natural state. Most of the time, that means leveling the area off and creating a grassy field, which is a perfect habitat for elk, especially when there is wooded cover nearby. It seemed a good idea to introduce the eastern elk's somewhat smaller cousins from the Rockies to these  abandoned mining sites, according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Land Between the States chapter.

The plan originally contemplated releasing 1,800 elk at a rate of 200 per year for nine years across a fifteen-county restoration zone. The translocations were discontinued in 2002, with just over 1,500 elk having been released at eight different sites, 500 in the final twelve months of the releases. Since 1997, the Foundation has increased its funding of the project to $2,000,000.

The elk have thrived in Kentucky. They are achieving a 90% breeding success rate and a 92% calf survival rate. The absence of predators, relatively mild Kentucky winters, and abundant food sources have not only contributed to the remarkable population growth, but also account for the fact that the Kentucky elk are on average 15% larger than elk found in western states. By July 2000, Kentucky had the largest free-ranging wild elk herd east of Montana.

Soon the state of Kentucky was conducting a lucrative lottery for elk hunting tags each year to keep the herd at a manageable size. 

Indeed, for the 2009 hunting season, the total population was estimated at a whopping 10,000, well beyond the original target of 7,400 animals, with a thousand elk tags being issued. It costs $10 to enter the lottery, and over 37,000 hunters per year have participated. The winners have to pay for a $365 elk tag on top of the cost of a basic hunting license. Since many of them do not live in the counties where the elk roam, they also contribute lodging costs plus guide and outfitting expenditures to the local economy.

The Kentucky elk were doing so well that soon, neighboring states were starting to have an elk problem. Within a few years, there were elk sightings in the neighboring states of Virginia and West Virginia. There may have even been a sighting across the major obstacle of the Ohio River in Southern Ohio. It is thought that enough elk have now wandered into West Virginia to stay that there is now a breeding elk herd in that state, not just the occasional stray. 

There isn't a lot of agriculture in the counties in Kentucky where the elk were introduced. That is also true in the adjacent counties in West Virginia. The counties of Southwest Virginia, however, are a different matter. While the area immediately around the Kentucky border contains many old strip mines, other nearby areas are heavily agricultural. Elk are much bigger than deer and could do extensive damage to crops. They also harbor several diseases that might infect cattle, as well as a chronic wasting disease in deer. At first, the Commonwealth of Virginia allowed any hunter with a deer tag to bag an elk during deer season. This angered some residents, who wanted to protect the animals, while some farmers felt the only good elk was a dead elk.

The debate went on for some time. Finally, this week, Virginia announced its own elk program

Virginia's Board of Game and Inland Fisheries unanimously approved the plan Tuesday, scaling back proposals that previously included three southwest Coalfields counties. Officials in two of those counties and farmers opposed an expansion of elk in Virginia, which now number 50 to 100 animals.

But in Buchanan County, a rugged coal-mining area that has seen its population steadily decline to about 25,000, elk are seen as an attraction sure to lure visitors with guns as well as cameras.

"This is a great day for tourism in Buchanan County. We're just tickled to death," said William Caudill, county administrator.

The county has an unemployment rate flirting with 10 percent and has seen an exodus of residents the past several decades, he said.
In a story that again shows that mother nature can be much more resilient than some people imagine, for the first time in over maybe 170 years or more, a large wild elk herd roams the Appalachian woods in significant numbers. 

I am not talking about the elk reintroduced in small number into Great Smoky National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, where they have been a major tourist attraction. Only 52 elk were introduced in 2001 and 2002. The current Smoky Park population is said to be around a hundred animals

I am talking about the as many as 10,000 elk that freely roam in Eastern Kentucky today. It is interesting to compare the large amounts of publicity the small-scale reintroduction of elk by the federal government in a National Park has received to the fact that stories of the much larger-scale reintroduction of elk into eastern Kentucky have mostly been confined to the regional news and to hunting magazines and websites. That is almost certainly because the Kentucky elk habitat consists of abandoned strip mines, and the elk were placed there by those who seek to preserve wildlife habitat because they are hunters. Such facts don't fit the media narrative about who the guys in the white hats should be in feel-good stories about the environment

Whenever time allows, I prefer driving across the country on back roads to flying. Two years ago, while driving across the coal country of Eastern Kentucky on my way from North Carolina to Minnesota, I was astounded to see a traffic warning sign with a picture of not a deer, but an elk! At my next stop, I asked the attendant about it. Elk had been reintroduced to the area ten years earlier and were doing what elk do, which is produce baby elk. The animals had become a very dangerous local traffic hazard. While encounters weren't that numerous, elk are several times the size of the native white-tailed deer, and a collision with one can easily destroy a car.  

When I checked it out online, I read an amazing success story about land reclamation. It was a 1997 joint project of the state of Kentucky and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to introduce elk onto abandoned strip mining land in eastern Kentucky. The original population of eastern elk subspecies largely disappeared before the mid-1800s and was declared extinct in 1880. Coal companies are required by law to return strip mines to a natural state. Most of the time, that means leveling the area off and creating a grassy field, which is a perfect habitat for elk, especially when there is wooded cover nearby. It seemed a good idea to introduce the eastern elk's somewhat smaller cousins from the Rockies to these  abandoned mining sites, according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Land Between the States chapter.

The plan originally contemplated releasing 1,800 elk at a rate of 200 per year for nine years across a fifteen-county restoration zone. The translocations were discontinued in 2002, with just over 1,500 elk having been released at eight different sites, 500 in the final twelve months of the releases. Since 1997, the Foundation has increased its funding of the project to $2,000,000.

The elk have thrived in Kentucky. They are achieving a 90% breeding success rate and a 92% calf survival rate. The absence of predators, relatively mild Kentucky winters, and abundant food sources have not only contributed to the remarkable population growth, but also account for the fact that the Kentucky elk are on average 15% larger than elk found in western states. By July 2000, Kentucky had the largest free-ranging wild elk herd east of Montana.

Soon the state of Kentucky was conducting a lucrative lottery for elk hunting tags each year to keep the herd at a manageable size. 

Indeed, for the 2009 hunting season, the total population was estimated at a whopping 10,000, well beyond the original target of 7,400 animals, with a thousand elk tags being issued. It costs $10 to enter the lottery, and over 37,000 hunters per year have participated. The winners have to pay for a $365 elk tag on top of the cost of a basic hunting license. Since many of them do not live in the counties where the elk roam, they also contribute lodging costs plus guide and outfitting expenditures to the local economy.

The Kentucky elk were doing so well that soon, neighboring states were starting to have an elk problem. Within a few years, there were elk sightings in the neighboring states of Virginia and West Virginia. There may have even been a sighting across the major obstacle of the Ohio River in Southern Ohio. It is thought that enough elk have now wandered into West Virginia to stay that there is now a breeding elk herd in that state, not just the occasional stray. 

There isn't a lot of agriculture in the counties in Kentucky where the elk were introduced. That is also true in the adjacent counties in West Virginia. The counties of Southwest Virginia, however, are a different matter. While the area immediately around the Kentucky border contains many old strip mines, other nearby areas are heavily agricultural. Elk are much bigger than deer and could do extensive damage to crops. They also harbor several diseases that might infect cattle, as well as a chronic wasting disease in deer. At first, the Commonwealth of Virginia allowed any hunter with a deer tag to bag an elk during deer season. This angered some residents, who wanted to protect the animals, while some farmers felt the only good elk was a dead elk.

The debate went on for some time. Finally, this week, Virginia announced its own elk program

Virginia's Board of Game and Inland Fisheries unanimously approved the plan Tuesday, scaling back proposals that previously included three southwest Coalfields counties. Officials in two of those counties and farmers opposed an expansion of elk in Virginia, which now number 50 to 100 animals.

But in Buchanan County, a rugged coal-mining area that has seen its population steadily decline to about 25,000, elk are seen as an attraction sure to lure visitors with guns as well as cameras.

"This is a great day for tourism in Buchanan County. We're just tickled to death," said William Caudill, county administrator.

The county has an unemployment rate flirting with 10 percent and has seen an exodus of residents the past several decades, he said.

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