Elk could be a boon to the Kentucky economy


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LEXINGTON, Ky. – “The Story of Elk in Kentucky” report shows that there were no moose in the Commonwealth for several decades. After reintroducing the animals about 25 years ago, Kentucky is now home to the largest herd of elk east of the Mississippi River. This fact could have a significant economic effect on the coal communities.


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  • Kentucky was without momentum for about 150 years
  • Animals were reintroduced from 1997
  • Abandoned coal mine sites in eastern Kentucky provide ideal habitat
  • Nearly 16,000 elk now roam 16 coal counties

It turns out that reclaimed coal mining sites, which are plentiful in eastern Kentucky, provide ideal habitat for elk. David Ledford owns 12,000 acres of reclaimed coal mines in Bell County, which has a poverty rate of 30% and an average family income of $ 26,000, making it one of the top counties poor people of the country.

According to a New York Times article, Ledford and his business partner, Frank Allen, are currently developing this land into a non-profit nature reserve called Boone Ridge which will provide a museum and bird and animal viewing opportunities. Boone’s Ridge is slated to open in the summer of 2023 and is expected to attract nearly one million visitors per year and inject $ 200 million per year into the regional economy by selling itself as a suitable place to spot elk. According to its website, the development plans to create 3,300 new jobs in the region.

Elk wanders in single file over a section of a 12,000 acre reclaimed coal mine in Bell County. The land is being developed into a non-profit nature reserve called Boone’s Ridge which is slated to open in June 2023. (Boone’s Ridge)

The pre-Civil War elk abundance in Kentucky is noted by the names of towns, such as Elkhorn City in Pike County, and bodies of water, 6 such as Elkhorn Creek in central Kentucky, but no elk only remained in the Commonwealth in the late 1800s. Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife was established in 1944 and quickly began to reintroduce animals, such as white-tailed deer, of which there were less than 1,000 after the Great Depression. White-tailed deer population now exceeds 1 million and generates approximately $ 550 million annually hunting licenses, tourism, rifles and other hunting accessories.

“When you look at the fishing and wildlife agencies, they were very involved in species restoration,” said Gabe Jenkins, former Kentucky Elk program coordinator in a video produced by RMEF. “And as a lot of these things started to end with deer and turkeys and otters, we were looking at the next step, and for us it was the elk. We had the habitat and the desires. elk in Michigan and Wisconsin, but there weren’t any in the southern US It would be a big effort, and the things we were looking for were a low road network, lots of open areas that the elk can use and feed, low populations of people, just a good open expanse. Eastern Kentucky made the most sense to us. “

Most of Kentucky’s endangered game has been restored over the years. In 1997, an association of hunters called the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) offered to pay for a six-year, multi-million dollar plan to move more than 1,500 elk from the western states to Kentucky.

“We’re starting to work together trying to find a way and a mechanism to be successful and help the restoration in the east by making those contacts in the west,” Jenkins said. “The financial side of a large animal movement across the country needed a partner to help us get over this, and that’s where RMEF stepped in and our relationship began. “

Elk was abundant in the prairies of western Kentucky during the time of settlement, according to the report, but most of that land has since been developed. The average elk eats about 40 pounds of vegetation each day, and farm owners feared animals would destroy their crops, so the thousands of sparsely populated and undeveloped abandoned coal mining sites in eastern Kentucky provided the habitat. perfect. Less than 25 years after the first elk set foot in Kentucky since the 1840s, there are more than 15,000 half-ton animals in a group of 16 counties in Coal Country, according to the Elk Annual Report 2019-2020.

“Eastern Kentucky is where our mining industry is located, and through this practice it creates early successional habitat and grasslands, which is perfect for elk,” Jenkins said. “That was really the engine that made us think it could work, and there’s a lot of habitat there. We wanted to try and do whatever we can to set ourselves up for success. At the time, there is had 3.7 million acres in our proposed area. The opportunities were endless. “

A University of Kentucky study reports that a tangible economic impact is already being realized because of the elk. The Commonwealth issues a limited number of elk hunting tags each year, and a few tours and guided hunting businesses have started, adding about $ 5 million to local economies.

“In 2001, we established our first elk hunt and remember we released animals from December 1997 to 2002,” Jenkins said. “So we were still releasing animals while we were setting up a hunt. We wanted to set the stage for saying that the hunters are going to take advantage of this opportunity. The hunters are paying for this, so they should join in as soon as we feel like it. Ease. Applications Even in 2001 it was $ 10, and we have maintained it over time. Today about 45,000 people request an opportunity to get one of these labels, and these people are coming from all of the United States. “

When it comes to elk, Kentucky also pays it. West Virginia received 20 Kentucky elk in 2016 for placement in its southern coal ponds. According to a Ashley Stimpson article in Belt Magazine, the herd had grown to over 80 by early 2020.

“We’re really writing the book on how to deal with elk in the east, and we look to our western partners for their expertise and advice, but it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, but apples more. and oranges, ”Jenkins says. “We are approaching the 25th anniversary of elk in Kentucky. I don’t think anyone could have imagined what has become of it.”

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