Dawn is just breaking as wildlife biologist Karen Alexy steers the truck through the Laurel Fork mining area toward Autumn Olive Ridge. Silky spider webs fill with pearls of water and are lit up like strings of jewels in the early morning light. Brilliant sunrays shoot over the ridge top and blankets of mist sleep in the valley. It’s hard to believe we are in mine lands.
The air is electrified with the surrounding sound of bugling bulls. We can pick out six different animals’ voices. Saplings and young pines are raked and torn with strings of battered bark hanging where the aggressive bulls combed their antlers. Elk droppings are everywhere. The air is heavy with a pungent, musty odor where they rolled and sprayed, leaving their scent.
“This is so exciting,” my daughter Sierra whispers enthusiastically.
Karen lines us up behind lespedeza shrubs as cover and we sit on blankets in the soaking grass. We scour the openings in the hillside for the movement of animals. Suddenly, blonde-colored bulky shapes emerge. Two furious bulls begin to fight, antlers firmly locked. Trees and branches shake wildly and snap as they battle back and forth across the slope. I glance over at my children’s faces, glowing with wonderment.
It’s elk rutting season and we’ve traveled to the eastern Kentucky hills to witness this phenomena. You don’t have to pay for an expensive trip to the west to enjoy these magnificent creatures. Beginning in 1997, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources partnered with Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a non-profit conservation organization, University of Kentucky, and coal-mining managers on a nine-year project to restore native elk to the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Free-ranging wild elk had been extinct in Kentucky since the Civil War. Fifteen hundred western elk were released over the course of a few years and, because of the excellent habitat, reproduction has been very high. Approximately 90 percent of the adult cows have produced calves, with the herd now at 5,300. This is the most ambitious elk reintroduction project ever undertaken in the eastern United States, and its success is one of the most significant achievements in Kentucky wildlife management. The state can now boast the largest free-ranging elk herd east of the Mississippi.
The reason the population has thrived is because of the fantastic elk habitat found on, of all places, the reclaimed mine lands. The elk adore the grasses planted on the open areas. Mining companies are required to reclaim these mountaintop removal areas, which have traditionally been replanted with aggressive exotic plants that establish quickly. Starting in 2002, however, 1,200 acres were converted to native grasses, and that has helped the herd prosper. The result is a landscape that looks remarkably like one you’d find in Montana.
Eight hundred elk reside within the Addington Wildlife Management Area, a 16,000-acre area that is part of the Star Fire Mine. A unique cooperative relationship exists between outdoor lovers, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the University of Kentucky, and Addington Enterprises.
Laurel Fork, where we are working with wildlife biologist Karen Alexy, is an adjoining reclaimed mining area, which the elk love even more. Karen drives my children and me around both areas as we assist her in her fieldwork.
I first learned of Kentucky’s elk a few years back and had arranged a horseback riding trip with Willie Amburgey, a conservation officer with Kentucky Fish & Wildlife, and his wife, Bernice, a park manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Amburgeys are part of the Blue Ribbon Horse Club out of Hindman and have hosted club rides in this area for years, and sometimes serve as guides for others.
On my first elk adventure, we took to wooded trails in an unclaimed area looking for elk under cover in the middle of the day. “Look for parts of animals,” Willie cued us in. We made out a rump section, a silhouette of a head and ears, a dark rack of antlers camouflaged in tree branches. It was like looking for hidden objects in a picture book. They were everywhere, standing motionless in the woods, seeing us but hoping we can’t see their frozen bodies.
“They’ll make small movements all afternoon,” Willie shared, “until the sun begins to lower. Then they’ll go out and feed again.”
Willie also took us over the open reclaimed lands. He showed me how you can turn ugly, used-up land into something not only beautiful, but greatly beneficial for wildlife. It isn’t just elk that love the grasses planted at Addington, but white-tailed deer, turkey, quail, etc.
We found elk tracks in every wet area that we came across. We were instructed to hop off our horses when we came to an “elk wallow” where the wild animals roll, lounge, and leave their scent. We caught whiffs of their muskiness, and when we bent down on all fours, nearly touching our noses to the wet earth, the scent became potent.
That horseback riding experience in elk country prompted me to return the next year with my children and immerse them. Since my teenage daughter, Sierra, hopes to be a wildlife biologist, we hooked up with Dr. Karen Alexy to help with her field research. For the last five years, Karen has been based out of University of Kentucky’s Robinson Forest Camp. She sometimes receives school groups and interested individuals like us, who want to help with fieldwork. As an added bonus, we get to experience the wonder of the elk firsthand.
We helped Karen track radio-collared elk using an antenna and receiver, and locating them by night using an infrared scope to see their glowing white bodies from their body heat. Karen recorded data on what plants they were eating and the time in her logs.
During the day, we also participated in “veg plot” studies. Returning to sites where she personally observed elk feeding, we determined what type of grass was in the area, how abundant it was, how tall, and how close the nearest tree or shrub was (for cover). The information she gathered will enable biologists and land managers to better care for their elk herds. This knowledge will also benefit other states that are looking to reintroduce elk.
Of course, you don’t have to get this involved with the elk, to actually use your vacation to do field study work, but we literally fell in love with the creatures. You should absolutely take a drive to this part of the state and expose yourself to the magic of these magnificent elk.
WHERE TO TRACK ELK
Jenny Wiley State Resort Park
Offers tours beginning in September and continuing until March. Upcoming dates: September 24, 25; October 8, 15, 22; November 5, 12, 19; December 10. They are offered on Saturday mornings and cost $12 per person. Groups of 11 or more can request a private booking on any other day. Pre-register since the tours fill up quickly. Call Ron Vanover, park naturalist, at (606) 889-1790, ext. 2269, or e-mail him at email@example.com
. Tours $12 per person, $7 for children under 12. This fee includes transportation via van to the viewing sites.
On September 24, the park’s annual Elk Night offers up elk meat on their dinner buffet. Overnight stay available at the lodge or at the 121-site campground. Special buffet meal including carved elk, elk meatloaf, elk potpie, elk chili, etc. $15.95 per person.
Leslie Knott Letcher Perry Community Action Council
Operates elk tours in Leslie County. They are based out of the town of Jeff, 5 miles north of Hazard. Fall weekend tours run September 17–November 19; $25 adults; $10 children 12 and younger; $15 each for groups of 10 or more.
Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park
Offers an annual elk tour that includes a stay at the park lodge. Friday–Sunday, October 21-23, $129 a couple, $89 single. Can stay a Saturday night with the package for additional $39. Includes room, dinner, bagged breakfast, and the recreational trip fee.
For more info on the area:
Southern & Eastern Kentucky Tourism Development Association
For more info on elk:
•Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
•Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: MORE ABOUT ELK
For trivia on elk and elk watching tips, click here: elk.