Elk Ecology and Colonization in Eastern Kentucky
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:
- Dana Secrist. 2000. Potential impact of introduced elk on amphibian distribution and abundance in an eastern Kentucky forest. M.S. thesis. University of Kentucky.
- Mattias Olsson. 2000. Activity and movement patterns of reintroduced North American elk in eastern Kentucky. M.S. thesis. Karlstad University, Sweden.
- Jeffery Larkin. 2001. Demographic and spatial characteristics of a reintroduced elk population. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Kentucky.
- Michael Wichrowski. 2001. Activity, movement, and habitat use of a reintroduced elk population in Appalachia. M.S. thesis. University of Kentucky.
- Beth Ciuzio. 2002. The potential impacts of reintroduced elk on songbird communities in eastern Kentucky. M.S. thesis. University of Kentucky.
- Nathan Seward. 2003. Elk calf survival, mortality, and neonatal habitat use in eastern Kentucky. M.S. thesis. University of Kentucky.
- John Cox. 2003. Community dynamics among reintroduced elk, white-tailed deer, and coyote in southeastern Kentucky. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Kentucky.
- Karen Alexy. 2004. Meningeal worm (Parelaphostrongylus tenuis) and ectoparasite issues associated with elk restoration in southeastern Kentucky. Ph.D. dissertation. University of Kentucky.
- Jennifer Schneider. 2004. Food habits of reintroduced Kentucky elk. M.S. project. Morehead State University.
- Julie Ter Beest. 2005. Effects of a restored elk population on soils, vegetation, and water quality in eastern Kentucky. M.S. thesis. University of Kentucky.
- Laura Patton. 2007. Golden-winged warbler and blue-winged warbler use of reclaimed surface mines in southeastern Kentucky. M.S. thesis. University of Kentucky.
This research has also produced a number of journal papers, and book chapters that further document the restoration of elk in Kentucky:
- Maehr, D.S., J.J. Cox, and J.L. Larkin. 2006. Elk (Cervus elaphus). In M. Trani-Griep, editor. The land manager's guide to mammals of the South. USDA Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy. In press.
- Schneider, J., D.S. Maehr, K. Alexy, J.J. Cox, J.L. Larkin, and B.C. Reeder. 2006. Food habits of reintroduced elk in eastern Kentucky. Southeastern Naturalist 5:535-546.
- Seward, N.W., D.S. Maehr, J.W. Gassett, J.J. Cox, and J.L. Larkin. 2005. Field searches versus vaginal implant transmitters for locating elk calves. Wildlife Society Bulletin 33: 751-755.
- Wichrowski, M.W., D.S. Maehr, J.L. Larkin, J.J. Cox, and M. Olsson. 2005. Activity and movements of reintroduced elk in southeastern Kentucky. Southeastern Naturalist. 4:365-374.
- Secrist, D. E., D.S. Maehr, J.L. Larkin, and M.J. Lacki. 2004. Potential impacts of reintroduced elk on amphibian distribution and abundance in eastern Kentucky, USA. Natural Areas Journal 24:65-68.
- Larkin, J.L., J.J. Cox, M.J. Wichrowski, M.R. Dzialak, and D.S. Maehr. 2004. Influences on release site fidelity of translocated elk. Restoration Ecology 12:97-105.
- Larkin, L.L., K.J. Alexy, D.C. Bolin, D.S. Maehr, J.J. Cox, M.W. Wichrowski, and N.W. Seward. 2003. Meningeal worm in a reintroduced elk population in Kentucky. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 39: 588-592.
- Cox, J.J., N.W. Seward, J.L. Larkin, and D.S. Maehr. 2003. Common raven nests in eastern Kentucky. Southeastern Naturalist 2:99-104.
- Larkin, J.L., J.J. Cox, M.W. Wichrowski, D. Bolin, and D.S. Maehr. 2003. Demographic characteristics of a reintroduced elk population. Journal of Wildlife Management. 67: 467-476.
- Maehr, D.S., J.L. Larkin, and J.J. Cox. 2003. Landscape history: linking conservation approaches for large mammals. Pages 321-340 in J. Bissonette, and I. Storch, editors. Landscape ecology and resource management: linking theory with practice. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
- Larkin, J.L., D.S. Maehr, J.J. Cox, and C. Logsdon. 2002. Yearling males successfully breed in a reintroduced elk (Cervus elaphus nelsoni) population in Kentucky. Southeastern Naturalist 1: 279-286.
- Larkin, J.L., D.S. Maehr, J.J. Cox, M.W. Wichrowski, and R.D. Crank. 2002. Factors affecting reproduction and population growth in a restored elk herd. Wildlife Biology 8: 49-54.
- Cox, J.J., D.S. Maehr, and J.L. Larkin. 2002. The biogeography of faunal place names in the United States. Conservation Biology 16: 1143-1150.
- Maehr, D.S., T.S. Hoctor, and L.D. Harris. 2001. Remedies for a denatured biota: Restoring landscapes for native carnivores. International Congress on Wildlife Management 2:123-127.
- Maehr, D.S. 2001. Large mammal restoration: Too real to be possible? Pages 345-354 in D.S. Maehr, R.F. Noss, and J.L. Larkin, editors. Large mammal restoration: Ecological and sociological challenges in the 21st century. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
- Larkin, J.L., R.A. Grimes, L. Cornicelli, J.J. Cox, and D.S. Maehr. 2001. Returning elk to Appalachia: Foiling Murphy's Law. Pages 101-117 in D.S. Maehr, R.F. Noss, and J.L. Larkin, editors. Large mammal restoration: Ecological and sociological challenges in the 21st century. Island Press, Washington, D.C.
- Maehr, D.S., R. Grimes, and J.L. Larkin. 1999. Initiating elk restoration: The Kentucky case study. Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies 53: 350-363.
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.
Jeff Larkin inspects radio collars
Searching for calf
Songbirds and Amphibians