elk bugling

Elk In Kentucky

History of Elk in Kentucky ​​

The late twentieth century witnessed an increasing interest in returning elk to Kentucky. Supporters of a Kentucky elk reintroduction effort noted that in addition to re-establishing a native species to the state, a successful restoration effort would also provide increased opportunities for recreation and economic development. The practice of restoring populations of native wildlife species was by no means unprecedented in Kentucky: KDFWR has successfully reintroduced or augmented wildlife populations across the state including white-tailed deer, wild turkey, peregrine falcon and river otter.

The increased interest in a Kentucky elk herd led KDFWR to conduct a habitat feasibility study and a series of public meetings in 1997 to determine the biological and sociological implications of restoring a free-ranging elk population in the state. The results of those endeavors suggested that a Kentucky elk restoration project was viable. The habitat feasibility study identified a biologically appropriate area in eastern Kentucky with an adequate land base, relatively low human population density, and minimal commercial agriculture. Comments from the public meetings demonstrated widespread support for re-introducing elk to Kentucky, particularly within the proposed elk restoration zone, where 99% of comments were in favor of the project.

Following the encouraging findings of the habitat feasibility study and the public meetings, KDFWR determined to pursue elk restoration. Donor herds in six western states – Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oregon and Utah – were located, and elk capture began in December 1997. After capture, all elk underwent disease testing and were prepared for release in Kentucky. Elk translocation to Kentucky occurred from 1997 through 2002, during which time 1541 elk were released into the Kentucky elk restoration zone.

The Kentucky elk restoration zone encompasses 16 counties total of more than 4.1 million acres. Human land use within the elk restoration zone has resulted in a landscape mosaic of approximately 80% deciduous forest, 10% active and reclaimed surface mine, 9% agricultural or cleared land, and 1% urban matrix. The original restoration zone included 14 counties, but Whitley and McCreary Counties were added in 2004 to provide a travel corridor between the Kentucky elk restoration zone and the Tennessee elk restoration zone.


Kentucky Elk Management

The Kentucky elk project is widely regarded as one of the most successful wildlife restoration efforts in the eastern United States and elk have now been thriving in the Commonwealth for over 20 years. Over this period, KDFWR has transitioned from restoring a once-vanished species to managing a sustainable wildlife resource.

This transition has resulted in an interest in creating a comprehensive Kentucky Elk Management Plan. KDFWR had two goals in writing this Plan: we wished to provide an overview of past and current management of the Kentucky elk herd and to provide a vision for future management of the herd.

Benchmark Reports

The 2015 – 2030 Kentucky Elk Management Plan serves as the long-term guiding document for managing elk in Kentucky, but it lacks projects to fulfill its stated objectives. These benchmark reports, called Plans of Work, are intended to provide a concrete collection of projects that can be implemented to fulfill the vision provided by the Management Plan and allow staff to prioritize elk management needs.

Elk Population Models

Like managers of almost all North American ungulate populations, KDFWR generates estimates of elk abundance by using population models. We utilize two different models in Kentucky to estimate the size of our elk population, a life table model and a statistical population reconstruction (SPR) model. All model inputs are derived from Kentucky-specific elk research projects.

Kentucky Elk Restoration Efforts

Wildlife agencies have a longstanding tradition of helping one another to restore native wildlife populations following extirpation. In addition to deer, wild turkey, otters, and many other species, Kentucky received 1,541 elk from 6 different partnering agencies to restore elk to Kentucky. Now that we have a sustainable population, we have had the opportunity to help others restore elk in their states. Couple that with the fact that CWD has not been detected in Kentucky. We are the logical source population for restoration efforts east of the Mississippi River.


The Kentucky Elk Expansion


Much of the attention that the Kentucky Elk Restoration efforts receive is placed on out-of-state movements of Kentucky elk to other states. However, many of our constituents fail to realize that the Kentucky Elk Program places an emphasis on in-state movements of elk as well. A large percentage of our elk are still somewhat concentrated around our original release sites from the late 1990's and early 2000's. This leaves us with large areas of habitat containing elk at lower-than-desired densities, or places with very few elk at all in some of the periphery counties of the Elk Management Zone.

To date, the Kentucky Elk Program and its partners have completed 4 in-state translocations of elk to either establish new populations of elk or augment existing populations in Bell, Pike, and McCreary Counties. The below video, created by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, provides a great overview of our most recent in-state translocation to McCreary County where we established a new population in the mid-winter months of 2022.

The Daniel Boone National Forest in McCreary County was selected as the release site for this new population of elk due to the abundance of public property in the area and the high-quality, vacant habitat available to the animals. The Kentucky Elk Management Zone is roughly 90% privately owned and the majority of our elk live in and around privately held lands. This causes issues for managers when trying to offer opportunities for our hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts ​​to interact with elk. Our McCreary County release site is located within Elk Hunting Unit 1 which includes roughly 300,000 acres of national forest property that the public will be able to access forever. Since the vast majority of this property was void of elk, these recently translocated animals will have an abundance of resources to support a healthy, growing population of elk into the future.

Further Reading

Kentucky Source Populations

Kentucky Elk Movements (where we trapped them, where they ended up)

Kentucky Helps Missouri Re-establish Elk In The Ozarks

Elk Capture For Virginia  ​