Eastern Elk Conservation Efforts Mean More Hunting Opportunities
Icons of the Mountain West, wapiti are coming home to ALL the lands they once roamed.
Days after he drew a Tennessee archery elk tag last year, Hunter Munck did what every beginning elk hunter would do. He went straight to YouTube. The 22-year-old Cleveland, Tennessee, real estate agent jumped from one video to another, gleaning nuggets of information as he studied each clip. He learned how to bugle and how to cow call. He watched videos that explained how to set up on a bull during a bow hunt. An optimist, Munck even figured out how to quarter an elk. Those lessons paid off on the third day of the hunt. He stalked and then called a massive 9x7 to within 10 yards before making a perfect shot.
But None of the videos he had studied showed him just how tough a mud-caked elk hide can be, a lesson he learned moments after he started to cut up his bull. His blade was all but useless after just a few swipes.
“I was using a knife with replaceable blades, but I went through all five I had in the first hour,” said Munck. “I didn’t have a sharpener. I shot him right before dark, but we didn’t finish quartering him until around midnight.”
And no video on YouTube explained how to get that meat out of the woods. Munck is an experienced deer hunter, and he was used to dragging whitetails back to his truck or loading them onto the rack of a four-wheeler. A 600-pound elk? Luck happened to be on Munck’s side. After his shot, the bull ran back up hill before falling just 60 yards from a road. Munck was able to drive his truck close to the bull, which grossed 365 P&Y.
Munck was one of 15 hunters to draw a Tennessee elk tag last year and one of 12 to fill that tag. Maryville, Tennessee, resident and “stay-at-home grandmother” Denise Potter also filled a tag during the 2018 rifle season. Potter is an experienced deer hunter, but she wasn’t prepared for the rush of adrenaline when a bull stepped into a clearing 115 yards away.
“It was heart-stopping,” said Potter. “I started shaking. I don’t think my heart could have taken much more of that.”
After missing her first two shots, Potter connected on the third. The 4x4 took just a few steps before piling up. Potter was the fourth woman in modern history to kill an elk in Tennessee.
Thanks to an active restoration program and a thriving herd, chances are good she won’t be the last. Already at 400 animals, the state’s elk herd not only is healthy, but also is expected to grow well beyond the current population.
“There are more places that could support elk biologically and socially that don’t have them,” said Brad Miller, elk program leader for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). “We don’t have a specific population goal, but we will know when we have run out of room. We definitely aren’t there yet.”
Potter and Munck were taking part in the state’s ninth elk hunt in modern history, which was the byproduct of eight years of elk releases in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area in northeast Tennessee. The TWRA, in conjunction with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), released a total of 201 elk.
At one time, the animals inhabited every state east of the Mississippi River except Florida and most of New England. As new settlers arrived and expanded westward, they pushed the animals into isolated pockets deep in the mountains. But even those elk couldn’t escape the growing demand for meat.
Tennessee’s last elk was killed in 1865, Virginia’s was shot in 1855, and the last known eastern elk anywhere was shot in Pennsylvania on September 1, 1877. The animals were declared extinct by the federal government three years later.
About the same time elk were being eradicated east of the Mississippi River, their numbers were ballooning in the recently dedicated Yellowstone National Park. Fearing an ecological disaster, park managers offered to ship live elk to any state that wanted them. The Pennsylvania Game Commission jumped at the proposition. Fifty elk were placed on rail cars and shipped to central Pennsylvania and released in 1913. An additional 95 were relocated to the same area two years later, setting in motion an ambitious plan to restore elk to their historic range.
But are these western imports actually native? Tom Toman, RMEF staff biologist, said that was a concern of hunters when Wisconsin undertook an elk reintroduction feasibility study in 1990.
“There was some opposition from people who didn’t want a non-native species released in their state,” recalled Toman. “I had to remind them that elk were native to Wisconsin and nearly every other state east of the Mississippi River.”
But those elk that roamed the woods east of the Mississippi River were thought to be a different subspecies. Cervus can-adensis canadensis was larger than Rocky Mountain elk, Cervus canadensis nelsoni.
“New genetic research is questioning the notion that elk that historically lived in the east were actually a different subspecies than western elk,” explained Toman. “They were not geographically isolated from each other. There is no reason to believe they weren’t all the same species. The larger body size is probably a result of better habitat.”
The science community likely will debate that for years to come, but whether or not the animals turned loose in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania and other states are technically non-native is mostly irrelevant now. Elk are established in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Missouri, Michigan, West Virginia, Tennessee, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, which has around 11,000 animals and is by far the largest herd east of the Mississippi.
Virginia became one of the most recent states to reintroduce elk, an about-face from the previous attitude of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) regarding the animals. Twenty years ago, elk trickling across the state line from Kentucky’s growing herd were viewed as an existential threat to Virginia’s whitetail deer herd. At the time, chronic wasting disease (CWD) was making headlines and researchers knew little about it. Officials with the VDGIF were concerned the imported elk might be infected, so for several years, any elk that found itself in Virginia was fair game for any hunter with a deer tag in their pocket. That shoot-on-sight attitude created a rift between the VDGIF and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife (KDFW).
“Kentucky assured Virginia that they would come capture any elk that crossed the border and bring them back to Kentucky,” said Toman. “That was an easy promise to make but a very difficult promise to keep. Catching an individual free-ranging elk is never an easy task. On top of that, the elk that were stocked all had radio collars so they could be located pretty quickly. The following generations didn’t have collars.”
As it turned out, they didn’t have chronic wasting disease, and Kentucky’s elk herd was drawing hordes of tourists from surrounding states. Those tourists spent lots of money. The elk hunt was started in 2001, and it also proved to be a windfall for the KDFW. This year, 39,000 hunters submitted 80,000 applications (hunters can put in for three different license types). Each application costs $10. Virginia decided that elk weren’t so bad, after all.
There is no reliable testing method that can detect CWD in live elk. The animals still must be killed to determine if they are infected. Toman said no elk has ever been taken from a state with a history of CWD, and the disease has not been detected in any state with an elk restoration program.
Disease was not Virginia’s only concern. Local farmers worried the animals would devour their crops and knock down fences.
“It does happen on occasion,” said Miller. “We work with landowners to reduce conflicts, but our state code prevents us from reimbursing them for crop or property damage. Support has been pretty strong, but there are a few people that don’t like having elk.”
His agency, along with RMEF volunteers, is actively working on habitat improvements on public land to keep elk off private property. Since elk prefer clearings, the TWRA has created large openings within forests and planted such things as beans, sunflowers, and corn. Virginia is conducting similar habitat work.
“We are creating or improving openings by encouraging high-quality forage to grow,” explained David Kalb, VDGIF elk project leader. “If they have adequate food and cover, they won’t have any reason to feed in crop fields.”
Toman said western elk have home ranges that cover as much as 100 square miles, and they will migrate long distances to escape deep snow. Eastern elk generally don’t go far from their release sites, although some do stray.
“The average home range of an eastern elk is more in the neighborhood of five to twenty square miles,” he said. “They have plenty of food in a small area.”
Kalb said one herd in Virginia has yet to leave a six square-mile tract, although he expects some to move after their numbers increase. That’s part of his agency’s goal, although they have no plans to move elk to new areas.
“There are lots of places that can support elk, but they will have to get there on their own,” he said.
Three other states—Maryland, Illinois, and New York—explored the idea of reestablishing an elk herd and asked the RMEF to initiate a feasibility study. All three studies determined there was suitable habitat and space for the animals. Those states did not follow through with elk reintroductions, and Toman isn’t sure why. He added hunters and other wildlife enthusiasts in a number of states have expressed interest in restoring elk, but so far, no other state agency has asked the RMEF for a feasibility study.
“I think there are certainly plenty of other states in the east that could support elk both biologically and socially,” said Toman. “We are more than willing to help if we are asked.”
In the meantime, elk herds are thriving east of the Mississippi—and hunting opportunities are, too. Pennsylvania likely will add a few more to last season’s tag count of 125, and Kentucky is selling 594 permits this season.
“We have actually cut back on the number of tags in an effort to boost hunter success,” said Gabe Jenkins, KDFW elk program coordinator. “Our success rates hovered around 17 percent, but since we reduced the number of tags, we are seeing success inch upward. We also reduced hunting pressure to increase viewing opportunities. The more they are hunted, the more time they spend in forests and out of view.”
Tennessee will award 15 tags again this year, and Miller expects that number to increase in the future, depending on the herd’s rate of growth. No matter how many tags are available, however, Munck and Potter have to wait 10 years before they can apply again. Tennessee prohibits hunters from drawing more than once every decade. That’s OK. Both are planning to apply as soon as they can, and Munck will be more prepared the next time he is fortunate enough to draw.
“I’ll definitely carry a knife sharpener with me,” he said. “And I’ll know how to get an elk out of the woods if I can’t drive close to it.”