There is perhaps no higher calling for a conservation organization than to restore extirpated wildlife species back to their historic ranges.
With that in mind, in 1990 the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation began funding feasibility studies to determine if wild, free-ranging elk still had a place in some of their former eastern habitats. Partnering with state wildlife agencies and universities, we ask three important questions: Can the habitat support elk? How will restoring elk affect the local economy and hunting? And finally, will local citizens accept a restored elk herd?
Repopulating Historic Range
Once a feasibility study is completed and a restoration project is approved by the state wildlife agency and affected landowners, the RMEF and its volunteers help trap and transfer wild elk from a source herd to their ancestral grounds. All elk trapped are tested for seven diseases, including brucellosis and bluetongue, before leaving the trap site. Healthy source herds have been used in Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah and Alberta’s Elk Island National Park.
Monitoring Ensures Success
Once elk reach their new destination, it’s up to the participating wildlife agency to decide whether they are held in acclimation pens for a few months or released directly into the wild. Regardless, after they hit the ground the elk are monitored for three to five years to study such things as movement patterns and calf survival to ensure proper management of the herd and their habitat.
Restoration Efforts So Far
RMEF helped launch successful elk restorations in Wisconsin in 1995, Kentucky in 1997, Tennessee in 2000, Ontario in 1998, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2001, Missouri in 2011, Virginia in 2012 and West Virginia in 2016. In addition, RMEF has funded completed feasibility studies in Illinois, Maryland, New York and West Virginia. The state agencies use the study data to determine whether or not to restore elk to their respective state.
A Benefit to People and Economies
Today, wild, free-ranging elk are making tracks in places where they haven’t for more than a century. Local economies benefit from visitors who travel from all over to catch a glimpse of the wily wapiti. In 2001, Kentucky held its first elk hunt in 150 years, and Pennsylvania its first hunt in more than 70 years. In 2009, Tennessee also held its first elk hunt in 150 years. As Eastern elk herds continue to prosper, the RMEF, its volunteers and partners will be there to welcome calves born beneath the hardwoods, and hear bulls’ bugles echoing across mountains and through hollows.