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Elk Making a Comeback in Kentucky

by Graham Shelby

After nearly 200 years away, elk are returning to Kentucky.

A group of 200 transplanted elk were released into Eastern Kentucky forests this past winter, and scientists are there to see if these animals can adjust to the place where herds of elk once roamed.

University of Kentucky conservation biology professor Dave Maehr says changes inflicted upon the natural landscape by humans in the 18th and 19th centuries also drove animals like the elk, the black bear and the red wolf out of the Bluegrass. "During that time we lost a lot of species in Kentucky," he says. Elk herds disappeared by 1800 and the last elk in the state was officially spotted in 1850.

Elk remained in the West and are still commonly found in the Rocky Mountain states. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources is involved in having elk captured and shipped in from Utah in hopes of repatriating them to their former habitat.

Maehr says the project will provide wildlife researchers with "an understanding of what this expatriated species will do in an area where it once used to live."

To monitor how the elk fare in this old "ancestral" environment, some of the animals will be fitted with high-tech electronic tracking devices. The devices will be hooked up to a satellite system to enable scientists, from their offices, to monitor the animals via computer.

Maehr says it is important to know what happens to each of the animals in the first group of arrivals so that the Fish and Wildlife Resources group can make adjustments to enhance the survival chances of the subsequent arrivals. "We're looking very closely at that first 200," he says.

Ultimately, the project's goal is to return about 1,800 elk to Kentucky within the next nine years. Maehr says large numbers of animals are needed because elk are herd animals and because of the possibility that some of the initial transplants won't survive. "There's a certain amount of stress involved for the animals," he says. "They're being transported a long distance, from Utah. The terrain will be different from what they're used to, as will the kinds of grass and shrubs they like to eat."

While the animals will be fighting to survive in their new surroundings, Maehr says anyone who wanders into the path of a foraging elk doesn't need to worry, they're not fearsome animals. "You don't hear horror stories about elk attacking joggers," he says. "They're nothing for people to fear."

The goal of the transplant is to create a permanent, breeding, huntable, and "viewable" population of elk. If the project is successful, he says, it could lead to other animals returning to their former Kentucky habitats. "This may be the beginning of some more interesting restorations that may involve other species down the road," he says.

Kentucky's elk restoration program, which is expected to take nine years to complete, will be the largest ever attempted in the eastern United States.