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On Dec. 18, 1997, Kentucky wildlife officials released seven elk on reclaimed strip mine property that was then part of the Cyprus Amax Wildlife Management Area in the rugged southeastern corner of the state. It was the first step of an ambitious plan to re-introduce elk into an area that had once been teeming with the large animals.
The goal was to build a huntable herd of 7,000 to 8,000 animals within 10 years.
It seemed almost foolishly optimistic. Eastern elk - one of six elk subspecies once found across much of North America - has been extinct for more than a century. Michigan and Pennsylvania had re-introduced elk early in the 20th century by transplanting Rocky Mountain elk from the Yellowstone area. Those projects were successful by modest measures.
Kentucky wildlife officials were thinking big. They had designated a 16-county, 1.4 million-acre swath as an "elk restoration zone." The area included that bulk of the state east of I-75. The game agency had big plans but little money for such a project. Then the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation stepped in with a $1 million pledge.
Wildlife workers trapped, transported and released more than 1,500 elk from six Western states. Release sites were largely swaths of reclaimed strip mining land that featured a mixture of pastureland and woodlands that would provide surprisingly good habitat for the big animals. The stocking program was halted in 2002, ahead of schedule, when the relocation goal was reached. Game officials estimated there were actually about 2,000 elk on the ground.
Today, Kentucky's elk herd has grown to about 10,000 animals. The program has been wildly popular with hunters. Kentucky wildlife officials issued 1,000 tags for the 2014 elk hunt. Nearly 39,000 hunters filed more than 69,000 applications for an elk tag (each hunter could apply for up to two tags). More than 20,000 applications came from outside Kentucky.
It is the most successful elk re-introduction program east of the Mississippi. The reason?
"We have a lot of very good habitat," says Karen Waldrop, wildlife director at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR). "And we had a large area to establish a herd. We don't have long, harsh winters. And we don't really have any predators. But the main thing is that we started off with a large number of elk. That was really the key to making our program so successful."
The idea of re-establishing an Eastern elk herd isn't new. In 1913, Pennsylvania wildlife workers trapped 50 elk from the Yellowstone region and hauled them home by rail. Five years later, Michigan released seven elk. Those fledgling elk herds waxed and waned, and today, each state's self-sustaining herd includes about 900 animals. Both herds are hunted. Pennsylvania offered by quota draw 86 elk tags last year. Michigan issued 200 tags. More than 32,000 hunters applied for a tag. In Pennsylvania the elk tag applicant pool was close to 20,000 hunters.
Virginia has established a small elk herd in a three-county area in the states southwest with a target goal of 400 animals. Hunting is allowed, with limits. Virginia hunters can take elk during any legal deer season, except in the three-county restoration zone, which is off-limits to hunting.
Tennessee has an elk herd of about 300 animals. Five elk-hunting permits were awarded in 2013. North Carolina is home to about 140 elk, including inside the state's section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is off-limits to hunting. And West Virginia is home to an estimated 60 elk that have wandered across the Big Sandy River from Kentucky.
There have been challenges. The elk today prowling Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina are not the same as the original Eastern elk. That subspecies is extinct, though biologists differ on what characteristics would have separated them.
"If you could have the two animals standing side by side," says Dan Crank, a biologist at the KDFWR, "I doubt you could tell one from another by looking."
Meningeal worm, or "brain worm" claims some animals. This isn't a problem in the West, Waldrop said, but it can and does affect elk and deer in the East. It's unknown if the parasite would have affected the original Eastern elk subspecies.
"About 10 percent of our elk mortality has come from brain worm," Waldrop says,"which is manageable."
Being drawn for an elk tag in Kentucky, Michigan, Pennsylvania or Tennessee is akin to winning the lottery. There is no shortage of applicants. "The elk hunt is pretty popular," Waldrop says.
Read the original story: Elk's Home Game