Elk are monitored
Within minutes of meeting Dave Maehr, it was obvious that he was passionately committed to his work and expected and inspired others to share that commitment.
As an internationally recognized professor of wildlife and conservation biology in the Department of Forestry, Maehr was a gifted naturalist who focused on large mammal ecology and conservation. He spearheaded the many research studies that contributed to the success of the elk restoration project in Eastern Kentucky.
On June 20, 2008, Maehr was working on another of his passions, the ecology and conservation of the black bear population in Florida. He was doing aerial monitoring of radio-collared bears when the single-engine plane in which he was a passenger went down near Lake Placid, Fla. That day, Kentucky lost a valuable conservation partner, and the College of Agriculture lost a renowned researcher and one of its best teachers.
“Dave was an outstanding example of a truly ‘engaged’ faculty member,” said Steven Bullard, chair of the UK Department of Forestry. “He was truly passionate about his research and teaching in conservation biology.”
Maehr was an award-winning author, a talented artist, and was widely recognized for his work in conservation biology. But it is as a great teacher that many will remember him.
“Perhaps his greatest legacy will be the large numbers of high quality graduate students he mentored while at UK,” Bullard said. “Their career contributions in wildlife management and conservation biology will leverage Dave’s efforts into positive impacts for many, many years.”
Dave Maehr was 52. He is survived by his wife Diane, two children, Erin and Clifton, his parents, two brothers, and a sister. In his memory, his family has established the Dave Maehr Memorial Fund to help continue his work in wildlife conservation and management.
Donations may be sent to:
Dave Maehr Memorial Fund
by Carol L. Spence
Autumn is proclaimed in the mist-filled Appalachian Mountains by the bugling of bull elk in rut. More than a trumpet’s single-noted peal, their vocalizations mix a piccolo’s falsetto with a guttural sweep across a bass violin’s strings, punctuated by the percussive clash of antlers—a jazzy cacophony designed to win the bull access to the harem.
For 150 years, no such sound announced a Kentucky autumn. Elk, or wapiti, were plentiful when Daniel Boone crossed the Cumberland Gap, but encroaching human settlements and over-hunting soon relegated the vast herds of the eastern United States to memory. The last of the wapiti was observed in Kentucky in 1847. But in 1998, they returned to their old stamping ground.
It wasn’t a natural migration. It took the cooperation of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and the fish and wildlife departments in Arizona, Kansas, North Dakota, New Mexico, Oregon, and Utah to plan, trap, and transport 1,551 animals more than 1,600 miles to finally settle in 16 Eastern Kentucky counties.
Today, Kentucky has the largest elk herd east of the Rockies.
The success of the restoration project is due in large part to the collaboration between researchers in the UK Department of Forestry and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
“We have this cohort of people that have co-evolved and worked together,” said John Cox, a UK adjunct professor of wildlife and conservation biology, who has been involved with the elk restoration project since 1999. “I think we’ve had a pretty good working relationship.”
“It’s a benefit to have a land grant university like the University of Kentucky doing much of the research,” said Karen Alexy, wildlife division director at state fish and wildlife resources. “It takes the subjectivity out of it. We take whatever they learn, and we apply it towards management decisions we need to make. Plus you’re training potential future biologists, many of whom have ended up working at the department.” Alexy should know. She did her post-doctoral research at UK on the effects of the parasitic meningeal worm on the Kentucky elk population.
David Maehr’s Leadership
In one of the longest standing research studies, under the leadership of the late Dave Maehr, a UK forestry professor, the elk project has provided researchers with a unique set of parameters.
“Very rarely in wildlife populations do you ever get to start by knowing exactly how many animals you have introduced and where they were located,” Alexy said. “It’s an incredible opportunity to have. It rarely happens.”
In the early days, Maehr guided graduate students and post-doctoral scholars, Alexy among them, in retrieving data on resource use and movement patterns, survival and mortality factors, meningeal worm infection, food habits, and interactions with and effects on other species. Over the years the research evolved to find answers to new questions.
As a graduate student under Maehr, Cox originally focused on the interaction among white-tailed deer, coyote, and elk. His current elk research focuses on new survey technologies, population modeling, and identification of landscape corridors that influence dispersal and interactions among herds.
Ideal Elk Habitat
The Eastern Kentucky landscape once was blanketed by unbroken forest, but now is dissected by islands of high elevation grasslands, the result of surface mine reclamation efforts. The modified environment, Kentucky’s temperate climate, and the low population density in that part of the state are proving to be ideal habitat for elk, a member of the cervid family. Elk typically graze in open grasslands at night, then retreat to the forest’s edge at dawn. Unlike their smaller cousins, the white-tailed deer, elk are herd oriented, so large grasslands not only provide nutritive forages, native or otherwise, but also allow them to stay in contact. This results in their uneven distribution throughout the landscape, which could have impacts on the ecology of an area.
“In the short term, it’s really up in the air as to what role elk play. The questions of elk impacts on biodiversity and tolerance by people are going to be increasingly important when monitoring this growing population,” Cox said.
Kentucky Fish and Wildlife predicted the population would reach 10,000 in 2013. Kristina Brunjes, Kentucky Fish and Wildlife big game coordinator, said they are starting to get some research data that indicates they may hit that number in 2009.
Question of Co-existence
Close attention is being paid to the social carrying capacity of the region — how many animals can successfully co-exist with humans — and also the ecological carrying capacity. Elk eat seven times what a white-tailed deer does.
Cox said the question that needs to be answered is, “Can people successfully manage the population through hunting, or is it going to be the case where, like in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, increasingly, we have too many deer, and there are no large predators to keep those deer in check. Thus far, the naturalized coyote is having very little impact on herd growth.”
Still, the state has benefited from the reintroduction of elk to the region. Hunting and elk viewing bring much needed money into an area of the state where the steep terrain often restricts agricultural and industrial opportunities. A study conducted in 2006 by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation found that a total of nearly $230,000 was spent in the region by 200 hunters. Twice that many hunting permits were distributed in the 2008 season. Fish and Wildlife’s ultimate goal is to distribute 1,500 elk permits, making the direct economic impact to the state approximately $1.7 million.
More than a decade after their return to Kentucky, elk are thriving. Only Pennsylvania has been as successful in reestablishing a large elk herd east of the Mississippi. Vital questions have been answered, and additional answers will be sought by researchers in the UK Department of Forestry.
As a result, each Kentucky fall will be proclaimed by the bugle of the elk.