University of Kentucky College of Agriculture

Elk Ecology and Colonization in Eastern Kentucky

Maehr and crew with female bear













YouTube Video featuring recent status of project

The return of elk (Cervus elaphus) to eastern Kentucky in 1997 heralded the start of one of the most ambitious wildlife restoration projects in North America.  From the transplantation of 1543 elk from 6 western states, there is now a herd of well over 5000 in a 16-county restoration zone, and the population is now legally hunted.  A key component in the ongoing success of this experiment is the widespread availability of reclaimed surface mines – rolling grasslands that appear to be miniature analogs of western elk range such as parts of Yellowstone National Park.  The formerly native elk has fared well in a state that in more recent times was home to forest-dwelling carnivores such as the cougar and gray wolf, the American chestnut, and at least 3 extinct bird species (Ivory-billed woodpecker, Carolina parakeet, and Bachman’s warbler).  Today, surface mines cover about 10% of the central Appalachians and are the focal areas of elk distribution in eastern Kentucky.  The elk now shares this landscape with a variety of early successional species such as the coyote, eastern cottontail rabbit, horned lark, northern harrier, yellow-breasted chat, golden-winged warbler, and grasshopper sparrow.   Even the common raven has nested in the artificial cliff lines associated with surface mines.  Elk research at the University of Kentucky has focused on the return of a species that was seen regularly by Daniel Boone and his contemporaries, but was gone by the middle of the 19th century following a deluge of settlers and widespread habitat change.  Because of recent landscape changes caused by human activities, the elk may be more common today than it was before European settlement.

The successes of elk restoration and research are due largely to the forward-thinking of leaders in the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources; cooperative landowners; and the hard work of an army of UK graduate students and technicians.  UK elk research continues to tackle ecological and conservation questions that are being examined nowhere else in the eastern U.S.  It is unlikely 10 years ago that we could have envisioned the extent to which elk have become a part of the Kentucky landscape. During this time, we have answered many of the ecological and technical questions that have made Kentucky elk restoration a unique experiment.  This work is ongoing and builds on the graduate projects completed (or nearing completion) and listed below:

This research has also produced a number of journal papers, and book chapters that further document the restoration of elk in Kentucky:

The book, Large Mammal Restoration: Ecological and Sociological Challenges in the 21st Century, edited by myself, R.F. Noss, and J.L. Larkin, was inspired by our work on Kentucky elk restoration. It examined the state of the art with respect to large mammal restoration in North America.

In general, elk have offered few surprises in their return to Kentucky.  Most elk stay close to release sites, and use grassland habitats associated with forest edges.  They give birth to young in early successional vegetation, and calf survival is very high. Coyote predation appears to be negligible.  Because they have no natural large predators here and seasonal movements are limited due to mild winters, elk tend to congregate in remnant forest patches where they change the structure of soils and plant communities.  Elk are generalist feeders, changing their diet depending on food availability – they tend to be browsers during spring and grazers during winter.  At current densities, elk do not appear to be a threat to grassland songbirds or forest amphibians, but these are issues that will deserve future attention as the herd grows and expands.  Reproduction has been more than ample to replace mortality, but it is as yet unclear how the meningeal worm and nutrition interact to influence herd productivity. Deaths due to human influences such as vehicles and poaching have not been alarming, but this pattern may also change as the herd grows.  Elk calves grow quickly in eastern Kentucky and produce respectable trophy animals and a huntable surplus.  Current studies are examining calf survival and population estimation methodologies.  We hope to steer future projects in the direction of dispersal and colonization patterns; and the influence of new and existing highways on elk movements, colonization, and habitat use.

The images below illustrate the elk restoration landscape, and the people engaged in fieldwork.

1st release Dec 1997

Active mining

Elk latrine and rest site

Cows and calf on the move

Calf eludes researchers

Calf and cow

Elk tracking

Elk calf hiding

Forest and fog

Forest and edge

Interior Forest Conditions

Interior Forest Conditions

Jeff Larkin inspects radio collars

J.Cox & J.Larkin at elk exclosure

J. Ter Beest analyzes soil samples

Searching for calf

Prepping radio collars

Multi-family group

The changing landscape

The elk landscape 2

The elk landscape

Using thermal tracking

Weighing a calf


Newly collared calf

Resting bull

Sunrise over elk country

Songbirds and Amphibians

B. Ciuzio bands a chat

Checking the mist net

E KY Golden-winged warbler

Golden-winged warbler nest

Setting up a mist net

Slimy salamander