Elk: A Kentucky Success Story

Thanks to conservation efforts, Elk make a comeback in the Bluegrass State

Decades ago, few would have predicted that bald eagles would be a common sight in the 21st Century. But as The Nature Conservancy celebrates its 60th anniversary, eagles are among the great success stories of modern conservation.  

Nature is resilient,” says M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “With a little help, animals, landscapes and even the air that we breathe can come back from the brink of disaster. These amazing comeback stories give me hope for the future of our world.”  

Welcome Back to Kentucky 

Here in Kentucky, The Nature Conservancy supported several organizations to welcome back elk to the Bluegrass State. Regarded as one of the most successful wildlife reintroduction efforts ever conducted, the Kentucky Elk Restoration Project launched in 1996 with funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Led by the Department of Fish and Wildlife, the effort released 1,556 elk from western states at eight sights in Kentucky between 1997 and 2002. 

Now populated with the largest, self-sustaining herd east of the Mississippi River, the 16-county elk zone spans 4.1 million acres divided into 10 Elk Hunting Units with a total of 576,994 acres open to public hunting.  “The elk have thrived in Kentucky, achieving high breeding and calf survival rates,” says Jim Aldrich, the Conservancy’s Director of Stream and Wetland Restoration in Kentucky. “The absence of predators, mild Kentucky winters and abundant food has benefited these herds. In fact, Kentucky elk are on average 15% larger than elk found in western states.

Energized by Success

Fueled by momentum created by reintroducing and conserving healthy elk populations in southeastern Kentucky and an interest in habitat restoration, the Conservancy has set its sights on a new project in Harlan County. That’s where the Conservancy is working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kentucky Department of Transportation and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance to restore almost a mile of streams and about six acres of wetlands at the Pine Mountain Settlement School. "For several decades, stream straightening in this area – located on the floodplain of Isaac Creek and Shell Branch – has converted what was once a broad, riverine bottomland forest and wetland system into farmland and the Pine Mountain Settlement School’s campus,” adds Aldrich. “With cooperation from the school, we hope to help some of the landscape function in the way nature intended.”

Returning the landscape to health with this restoration project will significantly benefit federally-endangered Indiana bats, which are known to swarm in the area targeted for this project. Once the project is completed, the Pine Mountain Settlement School will continue to own the property although restored streams and wetlands will be permanently protected by deed restriction.



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