Elk NetworkReleased in the East

Bugle - Featured Articles | February 28, 2024

By Gentry Hale

Catching elk isn’t easy.

Every morning, Dan Crank and Charlie Logsdon crawled out of bed at the crack of dawn to commute three hours to an elk capture site near the Utah-Wyoming border. There they learned if any unsuspecting animals had been lured into their corral traps—10-foot-tall circles of plywood panels reinforced with steel cattle fence. A trip-wire set in front of bait triggered a gate to slam shut. Some days they found traps empty, but they often caught at least a few—up to 15 elk on their best days. The animals that they wrangled in the winters of 2001 and 2002 were destined for a new home nearly 1,600 miles to the east.

Crank and Logsdon, biologists for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, worked tirelessly to help capture some of the 1,500-plus elk reintroduced into Kentucky between 1997 to 2002. In what has been dubbed a “carpet bombing” of elk, these transplants played a crucial role in growing Kentucky’s herd to around 13,000 today, the largest population east of the Rockies and one of RMEF’s early forays into two decades of successful eastern elk restorations. But it was no walk in the park.

For months Crank and Logsdon would check and re-bait traps, experimenting with whatever food source they could procure from the local corner store and feed-suppliers (alfalfa and corn turned out to be the favorites), then make the three-hour drive back to Hardware Wildlife Management Area where they were stationed. There they moved captured elk into holding pens, fed and watered, rinse and repeat.

“It was before the advent of cellular game cameras, so you couldn’t just check a camera to check the trap. You drove out there every single day; bad weather, icy roads, negative temperatures—it didn’t matter,” says Crank. “It was a pretty hard job.”

Crank used a three-quarter-inch plywood plank—shoulder-width and four feet tall with handles screwed on the back—as a shield when corralling elk. The big cows would try to fight, striking with their front hooves. “We’ve all been stepped on, kicked a little bit,” he says, “but it’s always enjoyable to do that stuff because not many people ever get to get that close to wild animals.” Once a cow hit the headgate so hard that it flew open and broke Crank’s sternum, sending him to the doctor. Another time a cow threw her head back as he was holding her down and knocked his shoulder out of socket.

“But were some of coolest experiences of my life,” he remembers.

After catching around 70 elk—enough to fill a trailer—the animals were disease tested then driven 26 hours cross-country to their new home in Kentucky. To limit stress, drivers drove day and night to get elk there
as quickly as possible.

But the payoff for all those long days and the considerable risk that comes with trapping wild animals surpassed what anyone dreamed possible. Following the last of 1,541 elk transplanted by 2002, Kentucky’s population exploded to more than 10,000 by 2015, covering land that was devoid of these native ungulates for a century and a half. Kentucky then shared its wealth of animals to spawn new elk herds in other eastern states.

Where did the Wapiti Go?

It’s hard to imagine a sea of antlers sauntering around areas that have now become cement metropolises, but an estimated 10 million elk once freely roamed across North America.

ln his 1966 book, The Elk, naturalist and outdoor writer John Madson wrote that “elk were probably the most widespread of all American hoofed species, thriving from central California to the Atlantic savannahs; from Mexico into Canada.”

Widespread from mountain forests to river bottoms and prairies, elk became the meat of choice for eastern settlers who harvested them en masse. Yet by the late 1800s, elk were nearly wiped off the face of the earth by over-hunting and habitat destruction, with effective game management and regulations still decades away.

“There are few stories of blood lust more disgusting than that detailing the slaughter of the great elk bands,” wrote Ernest Thompson Seton in his 1909 book, Lives of Game Animals. “The Deer of New England were killed off for the meat. But the wholesale massacre of the elk, like that of the Buffalo, was carried on for the joy of seeing the great creatures fall in dying agony.”

However, as the 20th century unfolded, so did an emerging conscience of conservation and restoration. Easterners still had a memory of abundant elk burned in their minds and were motivated to restore wildlife species like elk to their former glory. Sportsmen groups often led early reintroductions in the first quarter of the 1900s, dribbling small numbers of elk across the East, mainly sourced from Yellowstone National Park and Jackson Hole’s National Elk Refuge. According to a 2014 review published in Restoration Ecology, approximately 40% of documented elk reintroductions in the eastern U.S. have failed, mainly these early efforts. The lack of success was mostly attributed to poor release conditions, destruction of habitat, poaching and disease.

These early reintroductions often transplanted fewer than 50 elk, creating a genetic bottleneck that made inbreeding inevitable and sustainable reproduction next to impossible. Despite that challenge, elk herds in states such as Pennsylvania have persisted for more than a century, though concerns about genetic diversity remain.

Fast forward to 1984 when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was established. Little did the founders know that RMEF would play a vital role in reestablishing herds across the East by helping to fund economic, social and biological feasibility studies, working with biologists to create forums to share information, underwriting transportation costs and rallying our army of volunteers to help advocate for reintroductions and lend a hand wherever needed.

All the work that RMEF has done back East for elk and elk country is starting to pay off, says Charlie Decker, co-founder of RMEF. “To envision what it is today was beyond our comprehension at the time; we were just hoping to survive. It’s been unbelievable.”

RMEF’s Role

RMEF’s first dance with eastern reintroductions began in Wisconsin in 1995. These projects typically began with RMEF helping fund feasibility studies to see if the public would support bringing elk back, and whether they could thrive and expand on available habitat without raiding private croplands, tearing up fences or otherwise making themselves unwelcome. Studies also examined biological carrying capacity, determining how many elk the land could support, potential threats from predation and disease, and whether elk and other wildlife could find enough forage. Researchers also estimated what positive
and/or negative economic impact an elk reintroduction would have.

Secondly, RMEF funding helped with testing, translocation and collaring costs. This included determining source populations and providing expertise on how to trap elk, move elk and monitor them once they arrived.

And once herds became established, RMEF’s commitment continued, with money to help guide management and ensure thriving populations. In the mid-1990s, RMEF helped start the Eastern Elk Management Workshop, which brings wildlife managers from eastern states together to network, problem solve and share knowledge.

RMEF’s commitment continues, with grants to fund habitat stewardship projects that help ensure restored herds find the food and nutrition they need to flourish in areas away from private lands and busy roads.

Originally, wildlife managers released 25 elk brought in from Michigan into northern Wisconsin in 1995. This small herd fell prey to wolves and car accidents, slowing growth to a crawl. Then from 2016 to 2019, RMEF helped the state carry out a more extensive translocation, including bringing in some elk from Kentucky’s burgeoning herds. Reproduction increased enough to allow Wisconsin to launch it’s first first modern hunting season in 2018, with a herd that has now surpassed 400.

On the other end of the growth spectrum was Kentucky, where herd-size boomed from the get-go. Thanks to the sheer number of elk released combined with wide-open reclaimed coal mines and other private lands, which offered hundreds of thousands of acres of grassy habitat, elk quickly adapted to their new home.

In December of 1997, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources released the first elk to the Southern Appalachian coalfields of eastern Kentucky, kickstarting the next quarter-century of elk reintroductions throughout the East. Elk came not just from Dan Crank and Charlie Logsdon’s wrangling efforts in Utah, but also Oregon, North Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico and Kansas to draw on multiple sources and increase the genetic diversity of Kentucky’s herd.

The late Tom Baker, a lead RMEF volunteer and a commissioner for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife, helped to spearhead the restoration of elk into Kentucky, and Decker says it was Baker’s adamancy that led RMEF to help get the project off the drawing board and into action.

The success in Kentucky helped RMEF establish a foothold in the East, increasing recognition of the organization’s goals nationwide. The timing was impeccable, says Decker. “It just all fell into place to be a success story.”

Next, RMEF assisted with the successful restoration of elk to their historic Tennessee range starting in 2000. To date, over 200 elk have been released into the Volunteer State, and populations have since doubled. As elk have expanded, swaths of land surrounding the 50,000-acre Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area (WMA)—the original elk restoration zone—have been made public or accessible with help from RMEF, including 74,000 surrounding acres that helped create the North Cumberland WMA, which now totals 200,000 acres of public lands.

“It’s funny—it was good wildlife habitat, but nobody was interested until the elk showed up on it,” says Tom Toman, a former RMEF wildlife biologist who aided in the eastern reintroductions. “I think elk just have that magic, you know? I can’t really explain it. They just have that allure.”

In North Carolina, less than 100 miles southeast of the North Cumberland WMA, RMEF helped with the successful reintroduction of 52 elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) in 2001 and 2002, sourced from Kentucky and Alberta. Today, up to 200 elk thrive in this biodiversity mecca.

Time will tell whether the part of this herd that has since expanded outside of the park can sustain a hunting season or not. “The bottom line is that it was the right thing to do,” says Toman. “No, we’re never going to hunt in the park, but it’s still a good conservation project. And hunters support good conservation projects.”

Kim DeLozier, former wildlife biologist for the National Park Service and former conservation program manager for RMEF, echoed the importance of the Great Smokies herd for growing public interest and awareness of a native species. “The value of these animals for education, for the experience—it’s hard to put a value on that. People get to come in and learn about elk, get to see elk, take pictures, take their friends, take their relatives to see them.”

After this string of success stories, a curve ball came out of left field that mostly put a halt to the restoration work: fears of spreading chronic wasting disease (CWD).

For nearly a decade, the fear of introducing a lethal disease silenced all rumblings of reintroductions.

CWD had been on the radar of wildlife officials throughout the prior relocations, and precautions were always taken to use source herds with no links to any outbreaks. But with so many unknowns about CWD other than that it was spreading, the interstate movement of ungulates came to a halt. But eventually restrictions began to ease, and restoration efforts for elk got back underway again. Next on RMEF’s radar was Missouri. Extensive quarantining and testing helped ensure elk entering the state were free of disease, and sourcing from Kentucky, where CWD had yet to be detected in elk, provided a clean herd to draw from.

RMEF helped the Missouri Department of Conservation transplant 108 elk into the state over a three-year period beginning in 2011.

Virginia followed suit between 2012 and 2014, also sourcing their elk from CWD-free Kentucky, resulting in a herd of more than 250 elk in the state and the first modern Virginia elk hunt in the fall of 2022. RMEF continues to play a key role in funding the restoration of open, well-maintained grassland habitats to support the new herd.

Virginia volunteers like Leon Boyd, chair of the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter, advocated for years to gain approval from state agencies and played a huge role in the success. “From all the folks that we see travel here to see elk and the response that they’ve had for the hunting season, it’s pretty remarkable,” says Boyd. The first season alone, six elk tags were raffled for more than $600,000, all to be reinvested in conservation work throughout the state’s elk management zones. RMEF played a big role in generating that money by raffling off one of the tags for more than $93,000, says Boyd. The following year in 2023, RMEF raised $54,855 with Virginia’s second elk conservation tag.

The most recent eastern reintroduction took place in West Virginia. RMEF started funding habitat improvement projects there long before restored elk set foot in the Mountain State in December 2016. The initial introduction was followed by a subsequent 2018 release of 46 elk from Arizona. Although West Virginia doesn’t yet have a hunting season, it is a goal of the state once population numbers can sustain it.

Not every state that considered elk reintroductions ended up being a good fit. In 1996 the Illinois Department of Natural Resources approached RMEF, requesting funding for a feasibility study on releasing elk into the Shawnee National Forest in the southern part of the state. Wildlife managers there decided not to go through with a reintroduction based on the studies.

“To me that was really, really important because people thought we did the feasibility studies just to prove that we needed to put elk there or we were going to force it down somebody’s throat. But no, that’s why you do the study,” says Toman. If people don’t want elk or the habitat is not suitable, it wouldn’t be fair to reintroduce them. “That’s the important thing about doing the feasibility studies.”

RMEF also helped fund a feasibility study in New York, which concluded in 1998. Although both biological and social feasibility were found sufficient for elk reintroduction in the state, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation decided not to move forward with elk restoration at the time because of concerns surrounding CWD.

Looking to the Future

Now that elk have settled in to so many of their historic eastern abodes, RMEF’s endeavors have shifted from translocation to habitat and herd management, says RMEF Chief Conservation Officer Blake Henning. “It is unlikely we are going to move elk across state lines anymore. Our elk restoration program is now about managing habitat, hunting seasons in some places, and managing the elk where they are at.”

Although reintroductions have been successful, the United States has still lost 83% of its elk country, making it imperative to protect what is left. RMEF is helping ensure that herds stay heathy through the Eastern Elk Initiative, which seeks to grow elk populations and hunting opportunities in the East by conserving wildlife habitat and improving public access.

One of the biggest challenges facing newer eastern herds is a lack of quality forage. Current habitat projects supported by RMEF include creating openings, enhancing restored mining lands and funding research that helps determine elk needs in the region.

As herds expand, protecting quality habitat is vital. By working with willing landowners on voluntary conservation agreements (aka conservation easements), assisting in public land exchanges and acquiring lands from willing landowners to be placed in the public trust, RMEF helps boost access, protect critical habitat and minimize agricultural conflict.

Forty years ago, elk were unheard of in Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Missouri, Virginia and West Virginia, and without RMEF’s help they might still be absent today.

Now, deep in the spruce-fir and hardwoods of the Cataloochee Valley of North Carolina, alluring bugles ring through the vale and up the walls of the Appalachians every fall. Across the plains and meadows of reclaimed coal mines in Kentucky, calves nurse and cows feast on lush browse. Tucked within the rolling hills of Tennessee, tourists gather from across the globe to watch elk emerge into glades, all thanks to years of successful collaboration between dedicated biologists, wildlife managers, landowners, politicians, volunteers, advocates, supportive community members, state agencies and sportsman’s groups. And RMEF has been at the center of all of it.

Dan Crank looks back on his time afield capturing elk as the highlight of his career, proud of the impact that his efforts had on elk and humans alike. “It’s just an important milestone for restoration, period,” he says. “We’ve reintroduced turkeys, white-tailed deer, river otters and now elk—it’s all part of the big picture trying to restore species that were once here. It’s a great success story of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation.”