Zero to 11,000 in 12 Years Flat: Bonanza in the Bluegrass State

by David Ledford

Claudis turned to me and whispered,
“This is the coolest thing I have ever experienced in my life.”

Starfire Elk, photo courtesy of Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
Starfire Elk, photo courtesy of Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

This article was originally published in the July-August 2009 issue of Bugle, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s journal of elk country and the hunt, and appears here courtesy of the Elk Foundation.

Our boots hadn’t even touched the ground outside of the truck when we lost count of how many bulls we could hear. They were coming from a 360-degree arc around us, and one of them had to be inside 100 yards. It’s tough to pull out your gear in total silence when you’re twitching with adrenaline. My companion Claudis had a better excuse than I did, though. He’d never even seen an elk before the previous evening when we’d spotted a small herd.

Claudis had a Kentucky elk tag, and I was serving as his guide on his first elk hunt here on mining lands owned by Kentucky River Properties of Hazard, which had been mined and reclaimed by International Coal Group Inc. It was open to the public to hunt elk in a state that only 12 years before hadn’t seen such a beast since the days of Daniel Boone.

Bull Elk with velvet on his antlers Courtesy of Robert Karges, II  US Fish and Wildlife Service
Bull Elk with velvet on his antlers Courtesy of Robert Karges, II  US Fish and Wildlife Service

There was only the light of the Milky Way to guide us, but it was enough. Our aim was to intercept a dominant bull as it tried to wrangle its harem back into the timber shortly after daylight. Little did we know that what we would witness was elk chaos. There were no harems with a clear hierarchy among bulls. It was as if there were too many bulls and too many cows bunched into one spot on the face of the earth for there to be any real order. For two days we watched as many as 100 elk in one herd, with an equal number of bulls and cows, which appeared to be unable to figure out who was in charge. At any given time this spread of hooves, manes and antlers would cover several acres, with constant bugling, sparring, chasing, and confusion. This anarchy included bulls that were 4 and 5 years old, so we could not blame their social ineptitude on youth.

As we moved toward the ridge that would serve as our ambush site about a half mile away, we attempted to tread without touching the ground, both of us taking on that universal hunched-over posture that hunters instinctively know makes them invisible, silent and scentless. I suspect America’s first hunter-gatherers assumed the very same stance 10,000 years ago while crossing the Bering Strait on the trail of some mammoth.

We ourselves hoped for a mammoth of a different sort. Once we got within 700 yards of our destination, we realized the elk had beaten us to it. We could hear several bulls screaming at the very spot, so we found a little patch of brush and settled in to wait for daylight.

As the circular concerto continued, a series of falling meteorites added brief flashes of additional starlight, and our adrenaline mixed with the crisp October air to keep us shivering. Claudis turned to me and whispered, “This is the coolest thing I have ever experienced in my life.” I knew he meant it.

We didn’t get an elk that morning, but three days later Claudis took a big mature bull he named “Big Nasty.” It had real character, having broken off the last 3 feet of its right main beam. That suited Claudis just fine as it showed the bull had a bad attitude, had obviously been challenged by other bulls and was still “the man.”

I have now lived five years in Kentucky with an elk herd that represents what is arguably the greatest elk restoration in the history of the eastern United States. As director of RMEF’s Appalachians Wildlife Initiative, I’ve had numerous opportunities to watch people encounter elk for the first time. I’ve seen children squeal with delight at the sight of a calf and women cry as they heard their first bugle. I even had a 75-year-old man tell me he enjoys squirrel hunting more now than he did when he was a kid because he gets to listen to bulls bugle while he sits under the same hickory trees that have provided him with 60 years of squirrels.

A Kentucky-Style Slam Dunk
Things have come a long way since Kentucky released the first seven elk hauled in from Kansas in 1997. With staunch support from the Elk Foundation, the state then brought in 1,550 more from five other states. Released at eight locations, these wapiti exploded into their former haunts with unheard of vigor, achieving survival rates and reproduction as high as 80 calves per 100 cows.

The restoration was such a success that the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (DFWR) will issue 1,000 elk tags in 2009 (up 600 from last year): 250 for bulls and 750 for cows. Through public access agreements with landowners facilitated by the Elk Foundation, the state will issue another 30 either-sex tags. It’s easy to think that Kentucky might soon have the grounds to shake loose 1,500 elk tags per year.

Kentucky has catapulted into the top 10, and I’m not talking basketball. As of now, because of the work of dedicated Elk Foundation volunteers, an innovative state wildlife agency and partnerships with the coal industry, the Commonwealth of Kentucky now ranks 10th in the nation in the size of its elk herd, which after the 2009 calving season will eclipse 11,000 animals.

Red Bull Elk Photo by Harold Jerrell
Red Bull Elk Photo by Harold Jerrell

This elk restoration could never have happened without the incredible cooperation and partnerships of the Kentucky DFWR and companies in the coal mining and forest products industries. Some 95 percent of the 16-county elk restoration zone is privately owned. The mining industry and a few forest products companies have held together huge tracts that provide a relatively wild landscape in which these animals can thrive. With the exception of one release site on the Daniel Boone National Forest, all of the elk releases took place on private land, and most of the elk hunting now occurs there as well. Luckily, public use agreements brokered in part by the Elk Foundation are helping assure that lucky tag holders have a place to hunt.

Three Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
The elk, the habitat, the hunts—all of this started when three men came up with a wild notion for which they were not going to take “No” for an answer. Doug Hensley was the district wildlife commissioner for the Kentucky DFWR in the region where the elk would be restored. Tom Baker was the volunteer state chairman for the Elk Foundation (and later became chairman of RMEF’s board of directors). John Tate worked for one of the large coal companies that owned and managed thousands of acres of land for coal production. Many obstacles reared up, and more than a few folks said it could never be done, but these three persevered to generate the political and social will, the partnerships and the money.

What started as a far-fetched idea has become a sparkling reality. And the Elk Foundation has done its best to see that elk and other wildlife continue to thrive. The foundation has spent $1.4 million to capture, transport, release and monitor the fledgling Kentucky elk herd. The foundation has spent another million since implementing the conservation plan it created.

In 2006, Kentucky issued 200 elk tags through a lottery and more than 26,000 people applied. More than 31,000 applicants vied for 300 tags in 2007, and in 2008 almost 34,000 people applied for 400 tags. People from 49 states and two Canadian provinces have put in for tags. About 20 percent of the applicants have been nonresidents, and Kentucky allows for 10 percent of the tags to be issued to out-of-staters.

Kentucky elk are also bearing fruit of the antler variety. As the herd has matured, every passing season has produced a new state record, and so far three bulls have qualified for the Boone and Crockett record book. It’s only a matter of time before a Kentucky bull breaks the 400 mark.

Male Quail. Photo by Harold Jerrell
Male Quail Photo by Harold Jerrell

But while the future of elk hunting in Kentucky looks promising, it’s only as good as the public’s ability to get out on the land where elk roam, and the Elk Foundation is dedicated to expanding public access for elk hunting, viewing and other wildlife recreation. To date, the foundation has helped negotiate agreements between the Kentucky DFWR and private landowners to open more than 200,000 acres to elk hunters and wildlife enthusiasts!

Healthy, Wealthy and Wise
The Elk Foundation is taking a three-pronged approach to ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat in the coal fields of southeastern Kentucky: permanent land protection, habitat improvement and making conservation compatible with local economic development.

Permanent land protection efforts have focused on creating incentives such as state tax credits for private landowners to protect their property through conservation easements and developing dependable sources of funding for land acquisition. Currently the Commonwealth has very little money to buy land.

But as sources of funds are developed, these efforts will increase.

Wild Turkey Strutting.  Photo by Harold Jerrell
Wild Turkey Strutting.  Photo by Harold Jerrell

The Elk Foundation’s habitat improvement work has focused on working with the coal mining industry to make the best habitat possible on surface mines. In the past three years, the foundation has improved habitat on more than 4,000 acres of mine and timberlands through herbicide treatments, burning and planting desirable grasses and forbs. Timberland improvements have included partnering with the Daniel Boone National Forest on a 1,000-acre prescribed burn and creating and maintaining openings in the forest canopy to increase understory vegetation.

In the past, reclamation has too often meant seeding the fastest-growing exotic grasses. They create a quick flush of ground cover but offer little value to wildlife. This is now changing, and when combined with the foundation’s work on the ground, it is improving the quality of habitat on thousands of acres, and not just for elk but also for imperiled grassland songbirds, bobwhite quail, deer, turkeys and even honeybees.

Elk crossing sign along Route 15 in Eastern Kentucky.  Photo by Kari Kilgore 
Elk crossing sign along Route 15 in Eastern Kentucky.  Photo by Kari Kilgore

Kentucky’s elk zone is one of the most economically depressed areas in the United States. The RMEF has partnered with the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association, the Kentucky Department of Tourism, the Appalachian Regional Commission, and all 16 county governments to help create an economic development plan based on elk and wildlife recreation. Elk are appearing on logos, signs, artwork and advertisements for every kind of business in the region. These animals are fast becoming the icon and the symbol of this place.

Kin of Lynn
Kentucky is the land of opportunity, but it’s a landscape filled with unique challenges that require the Elk Foundation to innovate new ways of doing business. With our legions of committed volunteers and partners, though, I’m confident the bugle of bulls will echo forever through these hills and hollers.

Many years ago, Loretta Lynn, a native of Kentucky’s elk country, wrote a song titled, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” A movie was made with the same title and it told the story of a girl growing up, falling in love and launching a singing career in the Kentucky coal fields. I firmly believe that, as I write, another little girl is growing up in the same area hearing the bugles of bulls in the fall.

And one day, she too will write a song about it.

Publisher’s Note: Elk in Far Southwest Virginia would be a job-creating bonanza as well. To urge the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries to support the controlled re-introduction of healthy Kentucky elk to Virginia’s coalfield counties, e-mail dgifweb@dgif.virginia.gov or mail a letter to the state agency’s Executive Director Robert “Bob” W. Duncan, Director’s Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 4010 W Broad St, Richmond, VA 23230, or e-mail him directly at BobDuncan@dgif.virginia.gov.