Twenty years ago, if anyone would have told me, “wonder if we can have elk in Kentucky, my response would have been, “no way.” It just didn’t seem possible.
For many years, most residents of the state were also completely unaware that elk had been not only in Kentucky but over most of the eastern U.S.
To give you an idea of how prominent elk were on the early settlement landscape just look at the places named for elk. As you drive across Kentucky on your way to Land Between the Lakes (LBL), you will cross Elkhorn Creek, or you might see Elkhorn City and just before you arrive at LBL you will drive through Elkton. In all, Kentucky has roughly 150 name places related to elk. Even with these subtle hints, people were still not aware of the history of Elk in Kentucky.
From the Atlantic coast in northern Georgia north into Pennsylvania, elk were the primary big game animal. Unfortunately, elk across many eastern states disappeared so rapidly, there were not even hints this magnificent Cervidae had even been on the landscape.
There were no game laws and few, if any, people gave a second thought that they were hunting the last elk. Only fifty-eight years after becoming a state, Kentucky elk disappeared (1850). Neighboring states lost their elk during the same time period. Indiana elk were gone by 1840. Illinois lost their elk in the 1850s, and the last elk was killed in Tennessee in 1865.
The original elk inhabiting the eastern United States from the Atlantic to roughly present-day Arkansas were classified as the Eastern Elk. This now extirpated subspecies of elk were one of six subspecies found in North America.
Ernest Thompson Seton estimated that one-third of the 10 million elk found in pre-settlement America were Eastern Elk.
Since all Eastern Elk were extirpated by the 1860s, little is known of this subspecies that once inhabited most of the eastern U.S. In fact, all eastern elk were killed before any significant number specimens could be preserved in museums such as the Smithsonian.
Because of this, it is difficult to fully describe morphological differences, but it appears Eastern and Rocky Mountain elk were relatively close, and the difference may not have been that noticeable.
Fortunately, efforts began in the 1990s to bring elk back to the eastern U.S. One of these locations is the Elk and Bison Prairie located at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Western Kentucky. It has become a favorite stop for families, photographers, hunters and naturalists wanting an opportunity to get up close (in the car) to these large ungulates.
Animals are not packed in so you may have to drive around inside the gated 700-acre high fence enclosure. Both bison and elk numbers are kept within carrying capacity of the land by routine trapping and relocation.
Visitors will also get an idea of what the local area looked like during pre-settlement in the late 1700’s. A common misconception is most of western Kentucky and Tennessee was covered with a solid canopy of trees.
It is difficult for many people to understand what the Kentucky landscape looked like in the early 1800s. Native Americans had been here several thousand years and understood the benefits of using fire for attracting game (by improving habitat).
Not just at LBL, but over a large portion of Kentucky the state was covered with massive grasslands that the pioneers called “barrens.” To maintain this habitat, prescribed burning is used to improve large sections of LBL and the Elk and Bison Prairie.
These open barrens (later called prairies) were where Kentucky’s early elk and bison herds were located as both species moved seasonally between salt licks, woodlands, and barrens along “buffalo traces” (trails) that crisscrossed the entire state of Kentucky.
While the herd at LBL was the first effort to reintroduce elk into Kentucky, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources took these efforts much further and over a period of five years reestablished elk across sixteen counties of southeastern Kentucky.
This has also been a success story where hunters are now allowed to apply for permits and hunt elk. This past year, the harvest was over 300 elk in the Southeast Zone where current herd population estimates are over 13,000 elk.
The cost to enter LBLs Elk and Bison Prairie is $5.00 per vehicle and you can make as many trips around the loop as you want to. My wife and I will typically try to make the loop either early morning or late evening when they seem to be most active. We also plan on spending at least a couple of hours waiting for the right opportunity to take a photo.
This week and over the next few weeks are the best opportunities to hear an elk “bugle” as it calls nearby cows into its territory or lets other bulls know where he is located.
On most days, there are interpretive specialists located along the loop who can help you with pinpointing the elk or bison as well as giving you interesting facts about the natural history of these large species.
If you have never seen elk or if you have never heard an elk bugle why not consider Land Between the Lakes as a possible stopover for a camping trip, fishing trip or hunting trip.
No matter the purpose of your trip be sure to make time to drive through the Elk and Bison Prairie. As a wildlife photographer, I have not only photographed elk and bison but turkey, raccoon and many other species that have become accustomed to cars making routine trips around the loop.
To find out more about Land Between the Lakes and the Elk and Bison Prairie check out the link provided for more information.
The Elk & Bison Prairie offers a native grassland habitat common in Kentucky