Elk Pose Problems for Kentucky Residents—and Lawmakers

By: John Carter, Senior Staff Member

I recently asked a friend from southeastern Kentucky what he thought about the recent reintroduction of elk that has been occurring in his community. He said, “Well . . . let’s just say it could be better.” My friend is not alone in his opinion. Various residents of southeastern Kentucky have made similar assessments. The reintroduction began in 1997 to replenish the elk population, which was devastated in the late 19th century. [1] An Associated Press article highlights a number of problems that those living in Stoney Fork, KY have experienced in connection with the government’s efforts.[2] The residents cite car crashes and the destruction of fences and gardens as their chief complaints.[3] This criticism brings to the forefront an issue that often confronts those encouraging conservation aimed at restoring ecosystems to a former state: How does one accomplish these goals without negatively affecting the residents of impacted communities?

The reintroduction of an animal into any region will inevitably lead to increased interaction with humans. This is simply a matter of logic. However, that interaction does not necessarily lead to negative consequences. A great number of people in eastern Kentucky support the elk reintroduction program, and local governments, realizing the potential for revenue, are especially fond of the return. The homepage for Knott County, KY’s website proudly proclaims, “Knott County, Elk Capital of the East.”[4] A 2001 survey found that “[o]ver 1,081,000 individuals participate in wildlife viewing and bird watching in Kentucky creating 11,481 jobs and generating over $600,000,000 dollars for [the] economy” and “[t]he number of participants and jobs created . . . mak[e] it one of the fastest growing ‘industries’ in Kentucky.”[5] Though these stats may console government officials, they do little to quell the concerns of residents. Stoney Fork resident Lou Brock, who collided with two elk while driving his truck, probably has little patience for arguments about increased revenues; he is more worried about the $9,000 in repair bills he had to pay.[6]

Lawmakers have considered allowing elk introduction only with prior approval of community residents.[7] In 2010, the Department of Fish and Wildlife moved over 45 elk to an abandoned coalmine site.[8] Furthermore, an “extra hunting period was held for locals in January[, 2010] to help control the elk population in specific areas.”[9] Considering that the population is nearing the 10,000 elk target set by officials,[10] it is clear that problems will become more numerous and efforts to appease the communities affected by the reintroduction will continue.

[1] Revived, Then Reviled, Elk Now Hunted in This Part of Kentucky, MSNBC.com (Feb. 11, 2011, 6:21:48 PM), http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41522427/ns/us_news-environment/t/revived-then-reviled-elk-now-hunted-part-kentucky/#.TpMcab-I0tg.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Knott County, KY (Oct. 10, 2011), http://www.knottky.com.

[5] Elk and Wildlife Viewing – Economic Impact, TrailsRUs.com (2001),http://www.trailsrus.com/elk/economic-impact.html.

[6] Revived, Then Reviled, Elk Now Hunted in This Part of Kentucky, supra note 1.

[7] Bruce Schreiner, The Early Birds Catch a Look at Elk on State Parks’ Tours, Kentucky.com (Oct. 10, 2010 10:00 AM), http://www.kentucky.com/2011/10/10/1915062/the-early-birds-catch-a-look-at.html.

[8] Dori Hjalmarson, Kentucky’s Elk Population Close to 10,000 Target, Kentucky.com (Apr. 24, 2010 6:15 AM), http://www.kentucky.com/2010/04/24/1237904/kentuckys-elk-population-close.html.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.