The Return of the Elk

Monarchs of the mountain West, they once ranged all the way to the Eastern Seaboard. Now they are coming home.

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When people think of elk, they usually picture them in the Rocky Mountains, wandering along trails among snowcapped peaks. But elk were once an Eastern animal, too, drifting through hardwood forests from Georgia to southern New England, till uncontrolled hunting and habitat destruction led to their extermination. Now, more than a century after disappearing from their Eastern range, the elk are coming home.

In 1984, four Montana hunters created the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and now the nonprofit organization counts 115,000 members and raises millions of dollars each year for research and habitat acquisition. The RMEF works with wildlife biologists to reintroduce elk into states where there is suitable habitat and a warm welcome from the local people.

But moving the large and skittish elk is not easy. One major project that transfers elk from Utah to Kentucky has used experts from the RMEF to help them with the move. Cows and calves are captured, given a medical exam and fitted with radio collars. Then the elk are moved by truck and released in Kentucky, where reclaimed strip mines provide an excellent habitat. So far, the reintroduced elk are adjusting, but wildlife officials are vigilant against disease, poachers and injuries. By 2006, the Kentucky project is expected to have moved 1,800 elk.

While Kentucky has been the most aggressive in restoring elk, it is not the only state pursuing that goal. After years as a forgotten species, elk are the new darlings of wildlife managers, and a half-dozen or more states are moving elk or considering it.

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