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October 17, 2012
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Antlers in the Park — Two State Parks Offer Elk Tours

Elk tours offer close-up view of Kentucky’s re-established herds

By Katherine Tandy Brown

Elk tours are offered throughout the fall and winter at two Kentucky State Resort Parks.

Picture an Appalachian daybreak with wisps of mist clinging to the valleys. The air is clear and crisp. You’re on a hilltop snapping photos of an elk herd grazing before you when the bugle of an antlered bull shatters the silence. That’s one keeper of a memory.

And an easy one to experience, thanks to a program begun by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR), with funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Shikar Safari International, to restore animals to the state that once were a part of our ecosystem.

Centuries ago, elk roamed the commonwealth with deer and bison, thriving on salt licks, pure water and abundant vegetation. Then man moved in, claiming vital habitat and shooting animals at will. Elk and bison vanished from the state during the Civil War.

In 1995, through the KDFWR program, the first elk in Kentucky were placed in an expansive, confined grazing area now shared with a bison herd at Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. From time to time, the KDFWR Salato Wildlife Education Center in Frankfort will also have several individuals on premises for educational purposes.

Restoration of a free-ranging, self-sustaining Eastern Kentucky elk herd began in December 1997, when seven elk were released on a 475,000-acre area surrounding reclaimed land on the Addington Enterprises Wildlife Management Area near Hazard. The restocking process continued until the threat of disease brought it to a halt in 2002, by which time 1,500-plus elk had been released. Today the herd – which numbers 10,000 to 12,000 – grazes a 2.6 million-acre, 14-county protected area on reclaimed coal mine lands in southeastern Kentucky. Privately owned by coal companies, this repurposed land offers an ideal environment for the animals. In fact, Knott County has become the Elk Capital of the World.

“This program is very important for our state because we are adding back a natural resource that was eradicated at one time,” said Trinity Shepherd, park naturalist at Jenny Wiley SRP.

In 2003, elk tours began and now, from September through the first half of March, you can get picture-snapping close to these magnificent creatures – 700-pound bulls and 500-pound cows – on four-to-six-hour elk tours at two Kentucky State Resort Parks: Jenny Wiley in Prestonsburg and Buckhorn Lake near Hazard.

As in the Old West days, scouts go out before the tour leaves to spot the elk. At Buckhorn Lake SRP, park program supervisor and naturalist Sue Thomas conducts a natural history talk on the elk the night before the crack-of-dawn tour. At Jenny Wiley SRP, you’ll rise bright and early on tour morning, enjoy a continental breakfast while watching a short video about elk restoration, and climb onto a van by 5:30 a.m. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

The drive from both parks takes from 25 to 45 minutes – depending on where the elk are hanging out – with leg-stretching and photo-snapping stops along the way. During drive time, Shepherd relates the full restoration history, info about elk biology, habitat and other animals – such as white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and black bears – that share space with the elk. For an educational double header, he also talks about the process of surface coal mining and land reclamation.

Because the herd is so well established, the KDFWR in 2001 began conducting regulated elk hunts annually in October and December. (Participants are selected by a lottery called the elk draw.) In 2011, 35,000 hunters applied for 400 $10 permits. Proceeds go back into the program.

“The economic impact of elk to the state has been phenomenal,” Shepherd explained. “It’s the same as any other natural resource – timber, coal, natural gas, agriculture, our waterways. We sometimes overlook these as big money-makers for Kentucky, but they all are.”

Katherine Tandy Brown is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at

Catch the Elk

Jenny Wiley State Resort Park
(800) 325-0142 jenny-wiley/default.aspx
Fall 2012: Oct. 20 (Buffalo Night), 21, 27, 28; Nov. 3, 17, 24; Dec. 1
Winter 2013: Jan. 12, 19, 26 (Buffalo Night), 27; Feb. 2, 9, 16, 23; March 2, 9
Elk tours and continental breakfast – $30/adult; $15/child 12 & under. Overnight packages for $160/couple include dinner for two, lodge room, elk tour and continental breakfast.

Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park
(800) 325-0058
Fall 2012: Oct. 26; Nov. 17; Dec. 1
Winter 2013: Jan. 12, 26; Feb. 9, 23; March 9, 16.
Tour and continental breakfast – $30/adult; $15/child 12 & under. Overnight packages for $120/couple include overnight lodge room, breakfast and tour.

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