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Elk released in County

Elk released in McCreary County’s Daniel Boone National Forest

By Eugenia Jones


Photo by Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife Resources 
An elk rushes to freedom in its new McCreary County home.  The elk were relocated from other areas of Kentucky as part of Kentucky’s 25 year long elk restoration project.

With the recent relocation and release of thirty-six to fifty-five Rocky Mountain Elk in the Beaver Creek Wildlife Management Area of the Daniel Boone National Forest, McCreary County can now take pride in being home to some of the members of the largest population of elk east of the Mississippi River.  The McCreary County elk relocation and release was conducted through Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) with grant funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Captured and relocated to McCreary County from other parts of Kentucky as part of Kentucky’s Elk Restoration Project, the elk are a direct result of a project which began twenty-five years ago from 1997-2002 when KDFWR relocated 1,541 elk to a fourteen county Kentucky elk zone from six western states (Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah.)  During a 2004 effort to create a travel link between Tennessee and Kentucky elk zones, McCreary and Whitley Counties were added to the zone, resulting in the current sixteen county Kentucky elk zone which sprawls across 4.3 million acres.

Photo by Eugenia Jones

Above, Representatives from the KY Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, U.S. Forest Service (Stearns Ranger District), and local officials, including law enforcement, were present to see elk released into a portion of McCreary County’s Daniel Boone National Forest.  The McCreary elk release is part of Kentucky’s Elk Restoration Project focusing on conservation and providing public viewing and hunting opportunities.  Elk hunting will not be permitted in McCreary County until the elk population reaches a sustainable level and KDFWR grants approval and guidelines for hunting.

With the primary goals of restoring elk and increasing opportunities for the public to view and hunt them, KDRWR has trapped and relocated elk within the sixteen county Kentucky elk zone to better distribute and create new localized herds.  Hunting elk in McCreary County will remain closed for the time being; however, limited opportunities to hunt elk will be offered as soon as possible. 

In the past, corral traps were primarily used to capture and relocate elk in Kentucky.  However, recently and in the capture of the elk relocated to McCreary County, specialized helicopter crews were used to capture the majestic animals. Helicopter capture crews are commonly used in western states to lessen stress on the animals and speed the relocation process.  During the process of capturing an elk, a helicopter crewmember locates a herd of elk, isolates an individual elk, and nets the animal with a net dropped from the helicopter.  A crewmember on the ground secures and blindfolds the netted elk before securing the animal in a sling bag.  The bag with the elk is then lifted by the helicopter and carried to a trailer where the creature is deposited.  The elk is health checked, tagged, and radio collared before being relocated by truck.  These unique helicopter crews typically hail from South Africa or New Zealand.   

Elk are a larger-sized member of the deer family and one of the largest mammals in North America.  There are six subspecies of elk.  The Eastern elk which once roamed east of the Mississippi River (and throughout Kentucky) disappeared into extinction at least a century ago.  The elk recently released in McCreary County and throughout eastern Kentucky are Rocky Mountain elk.  The loss of elk throughout North America is attributed to the loss of their natural habitat and overhunting.  Often referred to as “wapiti,” the elk’s Shawnee reference is translated as “white rump.”  Elk were important sources of food, medicine, and clothing to numerous early Native American tribes.

Although the Roosevelt elk is physically the largest subspecies of elk, the male Rocky Mountain elk boasts the largest rack of antlers.  Racks of the Rocky Mountain elk can weigh as much as forty pounds.    

Cows generally weigh up to 500 pounds.  Bulls can reach 700 pounds, stand 5 feet at the shoulder, and stretch 8 feet from nose to tail.  Elk usually graze at dawn and late evening, enjoying a diet generally made up of grasses, woody plants, orbs, and acorns.  In the winter, they can also eat twigs and bark.  The stomachs of elk have multiple chambers (similar to cows) to help them digest their food.  Elk have a preference for open forests including clear cut forests.  

Elk mate in the fall.  Calves, usually weighing about 35 pounds, are usually born in late May and early June after an approximate 8 ½ month gestation period.  Newborn calves can quickly walk with their mothers but usually stay hidden in brush or grass for a few weeks.  The calves are born scentless and with white camouflage spots, helping them avoid predators as they hide motionless while their mothers forage.  The elk released in McCreary County are approximately 2/3 female with some of the cows being pregnant.  Calves are expected to be born in McCreary County in late spring.

Elk do not have an abundance of natural enemies.  Coyotes, wolves, and bears are predators, primarily to calves and adults that are sickly or weak.  Overall, man is probably the biggest threat to elk survival.

 The nonprofit Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation provides several interesting elk facts on their website (https://www.rmef.org/).  Included among the facts are:

-An elk’s top two canine teeth are called ivories.

-Male elk shed and grow new antlers each year.  Only the males have antlers.  New antlers are covered with fuzz called velvet.  Antlers harden by late summer, and the velvet disappears.  Disappearance of the velvet is one of the first signs of the rut period.  By September, antlers are solid bone.

-Cows, calves, and yearlings live in loose herds and groups.  Bulls live in bachelor groups or alone except during the rut.  During the rut period, cows and calves form harems with one or two mature bulls.

-Elk breed in the fall.  Bulls wallow in mud to cover themselves with the odor of urine to attract cows.  The bulls also bugle and rub trees and the ground with their antlers to lure cows and bully other bulls.  Bulls aggressively guard their harems from other bulls and will sometimes wage fierce battles for their harems.

-When frightened, elk raise their heads high, eyes wide open, moving stiffly and rotating their ears to listen.  Elk threaten each other by curling back their upper lip, grinding their teeth and hissing softly.  Upset elk hold their heads high, lay their ears back. and flare their nostrils.  They sometimes punch with their front feet.  If a harem cow strays, a bull will stretch his neck out low, tip up his nose, tilt his head back, and circle her.

-Elk are among the noisiest of hoofed mammals.  They communicate danger quickly and identify each other by sound.  High-pitched squeals are indicative of newborns communicating to their mothers.  The mother recognizes her calf’s voice.  A bark is a warning of danger.  Chirps, mews, and other sounds are general conversation among the group.  Bugling (a bellow rising to a squealing whistle ending with a grunt) comes from a bull advertising his fitness to cows, warning other bulls to stay away, or declaring his readiness to fight.  Elk also use body language (e.g., the head held high is a sign of dominance.)

Now that Kentucky has a sustainable population of elk, the Commonwealth is in the position to help other states with their restoration efforts.  Long-term, it is hoped that someday herds of elk will roam freely throughout many of the states stretching across Appalachia.

Conservation is obviously a key component of Kentucky’s elk restoration plan; however, potential economic impact is equally important.  Despite scattered reports of isolated elk sightings throughout McCreary County in past years, the recent release of elk greatly increases the odds of present and future generations of McCreary Countians spotting these magnificent creatures.  If all goes well, wildlife enthusiasts and tourists, with dollars to spend, will also visit McCreary County to view our elk, enjoy our nature, and boost our economic progress.

Sources:  Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Photo by Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. 

A member of KDFWR hangs tight with a blindfolded elk.

Photo by Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. 

Helicopters were used to capture the elk brought to McCreary County for release in the Daniel Boone National Forest.

Photo by Eugenia Jones

Elk (pictured above) darted quickly through the gate of a stock trailer and into the woodland of McCreary County’s Daniel Boone National Forest.

Photo by Eugenia Jones

Petunia, the pot-bellied pig, joined officials in watching the release of McCreary County’s elk.

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