Tue, Oct 04, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Appalachian tours offer close-up look at elk

Having disappeared from Kentucky around the time of the Civil War, mainly because of overhunting, the reintroduction of elk to the state is proving a boon to the tourist industry

By Bruce Schreiner  /  AP, HAZARD, Kentucky

Elk disappeared from Kentucky around the time of the Civil War, mainly because of overhunting.

They returned in 1997, when wildlife managers started the restoration by bringing in elk from several Western states in what was heralded as an important ecology and tourism program. The startup herds have grown to about 10,000 as the elk have flourished in southeastern Kentucky. They have no natural predators, lush food sources and milder winters than out West.

As their numbers have swelled, some elk have strayed from the Appalachian backcountry to come into contact with people. Those rogue elk have trampled gardens, flattened fences and caused car crashes.

There is a limited elk hunting season in Kentucky.

But more and more visitors are stalking the animals with cameras and binoculars. Two state parks in eastern Kentucky — Jenny Wiley and Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park at Buckhorn — offer fall and winter elk tours.

Shepherd said he scouts the animals before the tours begin to make sure the sightseers from Jenny Wiley get a look at the animals.

“We have a 100 percent success rate,” he said.

During the fall mating season, many herds feature one or two mature bull elk and their “harem” of 15 to 20 females. Small clusters of bachelor groups of young male elk also roam the countryside.

In the winter, once the mating season is over, the elk herds will expand to as many as 100 to 200 animals, Shepherd said.

Once the viewing was finished, the vans stopped to give the sightseers a chance to stretch their legs and listen to a short elk lesson from Shepherd. Then it was back in the vans for the 45-minute drive back to Jenny Wiley park to complete the five-hour tour.

The tours stretch from mid-September to March, and Shepherd said he never tires of looking at the animals.

“When you go out and see these animals back in their native range here, there’s nothing like it for me,” he said.

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