May 30, 2013

The Return of the Elk to the East: Kentucky Most Prominently, But Now Little Pockets Everywhere

go to minute 2:45 if you want to get to the point...
I'm not usually an emotional guy, but somehow those 45 or so seconds of footage bring me close to tears. This entry might be the one that most affects me on a personal level, since it affects so fundamentally and dramatically a place I love so much and know so well, the Eastern United States, and the Appalachian Mountains.
When I saw the above video,while learning about a release of Elk in Missouri that were brought from this wildly successful Kentucky herd, first released in 1997, I felt like I was learning about a long lost uncle as an adult, as if something that had been missing from me, and from how I understood my world on some emotional level, was being returned, even though I had never known it was gone.
Not to play into the myth of a pristine pre-Colombian world, but I for years was left non-plussed by the legions of white tailed deer that populated my world, by the eastward moving Coyotes that were the only predators left, as they invaded previously unknown territories for them to pick off the edges of the weird kind of predator-less garden patch that was the East.
I grew up suspecting but never knowing that that Eastern ecosystem had indeed been a wilder and much more complex one, and watching this video, after an accidental run in with an article about the Missouri effort, was big for me.

I had always thought I knew a lot about New England ecology as a kid, and then that of the Appalachians as I got a bit older. I knew we had black bears and white tails, and not much else on the big animal level, maybe some cool weasels if you were lucky, and always talk of some phantom Mountain Lion roaming the land, but never like in the past.
Eastern Ecology is ruled by nostalgia, and by this persistent compromise with the growth of the population on the Eastern Sea Board, the awkwardly named Bo-Wash Corridor and other places like Virginia Beach, and with the coal mining industry which is the ever harped about lifeblood of the Central Appalachians, like a family in crisis with the neediest sibling screaming the loudest, the coal industry, a far cry from the humility of suffering and frontiersman-ship that were the touchstones of legends of the early European settlement in the days after Plymouth Rock. I would sometimes scratch my head trying to figure out why Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone might be so challenged by a simple whitetail. Now I know it wasn't necessarily whitetails they were after. Now I know that Wolves once roamed freely, that the forest humus used to be thick and full, sheltered by old growth canopy stretching for leagues before earthworms, extirpated by the ice ago, were reintroduced to the east of North America by the ballast of the boats that settled Jamestown, the Susan Constant, Godspeed, and Discovery. Life on the east coast was indeed quite wild, and quite different from what we find today..

An old friend of mine was a direct descendant of Daniel Boone, who hunted Elk when he came west though the Cumberland Gap, but as the map showed you, about 85 years after him and 125 years before my buddywas born, who still carries the orneriness of the original settlers, without the wilderness to bounce off of, they were no more Elk to be found in Ken-Tuck-ee.
Now that I know about the Elk, it somehow gives me a warm feeling because of how seriously some states and the Federal government are taking their reintroduction, somehow making an un-whole, or ecologically broken East Coast and Eastern US now more whole, like an environmental form of Truth and Reconciliation that occurred in places like South Sudan, the Balkans, South Africa, and East Timor. We are facing our mistakes and correcting them as a society.
I had never known that there were two sub species that didn't make it past the initial wave of settlement that similarly drove out the Mohican's, and so many other tribes in the Trail of Tears, and so many species that were lost or driven west by the incessant drive to domesticate these amazing fertile fields, possessing some of the thickest topsoil in the world, 80 meters in some areas near the Mississippi I was once told, that existed west of the Alleghenies. Alleghenies are thought to be the true indigenous name of the Appalachians, which was a bit of a map makers mistake as the Apalachicola of Florida boastfully but humorously claimed to Spanish explorers that they owned all the land and mountains of the east coast, a boast that would have made the Cherokee, Huron, Algonquin, and Mohawks to name a few more than a bit incensed to know about, if they hadn't had a bit more to worry about at the time.
These were the territories of the Elk of what is now the United States:
And let's not forget that Elk are park of a wider group of Wapiti that live in Asia as well:

One of the Sub Species brought to extinction was the Eastern Elk (except for a group of half breeds now know as Red Deer in New Zealand),
Wikipedia Entry on Eastern Elk
 supposedly the largest of them all, and the other the Merriam's Elk of the Southwest
Wikipedia entry on Merriam Elk
What I had once heard rumors about, but never placed in a context, just figuring it was a fluke of some Gilded Age or Roaring 20's Hunters, was the Pennsylvania Elk Herd.
Benezette, PA on Google Maps
They were of course reintroduced as well, from one of the western breeds, but have been alive and well for close to 100 years in areas of Northwest, PA, which does bespeak why some areas of western PA east of Pittsburgh do seem truly wild, the folded mountains and gorges really resistant to the onslaught of domestication that takes people by surprise as they drive west on I-80 or the PA Turnpike.
But they remained alone on the east coast, this little pocket, a delight to hunters, perhaps a frustration to a few neighbors, and an unknown entity to countless Wolves who might have taken the effort to get to central PA from their nearest locations north of the St Lawrence had their little sniffers been able to pick up the scent. that is, until someone started some forward thinking in Kentucky. I don't know whether it was the conservationists of old, political speak for hunters who are friends of environmentalism as long as they get to take a few, who did save Elk in all of North America from extinction in the late 1800s by their efforts to save the Yellowstone herd and other remnant pockets in the west, that had dwindled from millions of animals, to less than 40,000 I believe in all of the west by the turn of the century.
Unbenounced to me until recently, Michigan was a bit ahead of the gentlemen hunters in Pennsylvania, adding their own herd to the finget tip of the mitten in 1918. They reached 1500 individuals, but cut back to 800-900 for this 576 square mile area that has been designated as official elk habitat since 1984. They are staying where they are though, with no fantasies in the plan, currently, of allowing them to resettle all of wild north Michigan.,4570,7-153-10363_10856_10893-28275--,00.html
Pigeon River Country State Forest Area, heart of Michigan Elk Range
Now before I go into Kentucky, lemme give some more credit where credit is due to the great state of Arkansas, which did in fact enact a reintroduction in the early 1980's around Buffalo River National River, a unit of the National Park Service, and the first of it's kind subsequent to the modern environmental movement that began in the early 1970s with the publishing of Silent Spring, and was a place where Nixon and the Democratic Congress of the time found a lot of common ground as the public outcry grew for a number of environmental initiatives like the clean air act that launched the modern era.
they number some 400 today of the 100 or so released from the high plains.
But despite the two previous populations in Pennsylvania and Michigan, and the addition of and Arkansas some fourty years ago, none of them quite went as far as Kentucky decided to go, and another neat thing to realize, is that Kentucky did this in a complicated border region near the Cumberland Gap, where they adjoin Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee, and North Carolina is pretty close by as well... you might imagine that Elk don't quite ask permission to cross state lines in these areas.. although they might be penned in by I-81 or the like, they have plenty of room to grow into all of the Southern Appalachians. Kentucky just has to shucks and apologize over to their 4 neighbors, most of whom are beginning to take it in stride.
From the first releases documented about some 16 years ago, 1997, occurring every few years until 2002, there is a healthy population of 10k and growing. I have no idea who first had the idea in earnest, but someone in the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, an important government agency in a place like Kentucky you might imagine, got in touch with a group of neat guys in Missoula, Montana called the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. These guys have their hands in every single dang thing that happens with Elk,  have raised not millions, but hundreds of millions of dollars in their time. Aside from the Federal and State Governments, they are the big players in this world, a bunch of Montana Conservationists, again read 'hunters', who had some cash in their pockets and seemed to get what was up, and had a way of connecting with the officials at these state agencies who might ignore their own biologists or the last 10 greenies left in a place like Kentucky or West Virginia, a breed just about as rare as Eastern Elk, who no matter how right they might be about healthy ecosystems, are likely to not have much of a voice in places like this.
the video at top tells the true story, but here the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation lays out the bare facts.
This video below shows the good ol'boy combo of hunting and environmentalism, driven by the hunting revenue, that is helping make this all happen. If you have a sharp eye, you will spot that a lot of the 'Elk Parks' that they are putting these reintroduced animals onto are the re-mediated removed mountaintops of the coal industry, and this might be the only silver lining of that horrible practice.

So as has become a trend I have realized in environmental issues, a trickle becomes a waterfall at some point without people realizing it.. Kentucky's bold act got around, and other states slowly began to emulate.
When the National Park Service wanted to reintroduce Wolf to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, they kind of put the cart before the horse, and it ended in failure..
One of the biggest reasons that the Wolf got out of there because there was nothing to eat. Wolf, like elk, have an uncanny habit of ignoring arbitrary human lines on a map. They wandered out of the park in search of food because there were no elk as there had been when the wolf roamed free. That effort in 1998 led to another one with elk in 2002 that might someday again pave the way for a more successful reintroduction of one of my favorite east coast predatory species to their old mountain home...
you can see above that it is a small herd, about 140, all bottled up in one small area above Waynesville NC, and Maggie Valley, called the Cataloochie, up a dirt road called Cove Creek that still manages to attract a healthy amount of Subaru driving aficionados away from the parks main attractions along the Newfound Gap Road,  but give em time. In fact, as I update this post two years later, a herd of 20 is growing in the next valley by the Cherokee REservation.
Interactive Map of Great Smokey Mountain NP
Now to the effort that first caught my attention, part of this cascade, as other states catch on as well and decide this just is right to do:
nope not talking about Virginia's nascent effort in Buchanan County (pronounced Buck-a-nan, you Yankee.. yep, I've been there..), nor Wisconsin's efforts to grow the 150 odd strong herd they reintroduced in 1995 after Elk were extirpated there in 1948 (Minnesota and Wisconsin aren't really the East... in a funny way, their Sand County Almanac Environmental Values were never quite lost, so I don't quite put them in the same sorry shape of the Southern Apps, or the Lower Midwest. the one that caught my eye was Missouri, since as the saying goes "as goes Missouri, so goes the nation." might be very well a good thing in this case.

And.... they're back:

I've heard rumors that Indiana is considering doing something in the vast National Forests it has down south, and even Suburban Illinois has a little population fenced in in a town called Elk Grove to remind us of what was, and what will be again... far be it for me to hope for an earthquake that accidentally knocks down the fence..
Let the bugling return!

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