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More than 10 million elk wandered the continent when the pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower onto North American soil—inhabiting all of what would eventually become the Lower 48 states except Florida and upper New England. In the following centuries, elk numbers plummeted due to a variety of factors including habitat loss and over harvest. By 1900, less than 100,000 of these majestic members of the deer family remained in a handful of small, scattered groups.
Thankfully, a consortium of hunters and other conservationists joined forces just in time to reverse the trend and avert the species’ demise. Although the recovery effort has been a long and hard-fought battle, it has produced spectacular victories. Reintroductions have brought the number of states with free-ranging elk back up to 28, and officials with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF)—a Federal Ammunition conservation partner and one of the main players in the fight to conserve and restore elk populations—report that the continental herd currently stands at more than a million animals.
“Overall, the North American elk herd is in pretty good shape,” says Blake Henning, the group’s chief conservation officer. “That’s not to say there aren’t areas with issues, but in general the herd is strong and healthy.”
In traditional Western strongholds like Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, elk populations are at or even above goal. “We actually have too many elk in some areas, where the animals are causing crop depredation problems,” he notes.
As a result, Henning says the outlook for hunters is excellent. “Some people talk about the good old days of elk hunting being 15 years ago, but I’d argue that this is a great time to be an elk hunter, too,” he says. “Hunting opportunities have expanded and several states offer multiple tags; you can hunt from early August to February if you want to.”
Henning notes that modern elk hunting isn’t just a numbers game. “There are ample numbers of elk in many locations, and opportunities to take large animals as well,” he says. “For example, Montana produced a new world-record archery bull last fall, and hunters who do their homework have chances for trophy animals in many other areas.”
Henning says Kentucky is the biggest success story on the reintroduction front. “RMEF has assisted these efforts since they began in the late 1990s, when approximately 1,500 elk were moved into the state,” he says. “Today, Kentucky has approximately 11,000 wild elk and offers around 900 hunting permits each fall. RMEF has also helped elk stage a comeback in Wisconsin, Tennessee, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia and Ontario, and we assisted West Virginia when it launched a three-year restoration last December.”
Elk are political footballs in some states. In Minnesota, for example, the state legislature in 2016 put into law language that directs the Department of Natural Resources to "not manage elk in a manner that would increase the size of the herd." Additional language instructs that before any management actions designed to increase the size of the herd take place, no increase in crop or fence damage from elk must be verified for a period of two years.
As a result, the Minnesota herd—which once ranged statewide except for the coniferous forests of the Arrowhead region—is limited to three small groups in the northwestern part of the state, totaling 79 elk at last count.
Other states, like Wisconsin, are trying to jump-start stalled reintroductions. “Wisconsin is headed into the fourth year of importing Kentucky elk to boost its herd,” says Henning. “Wisconsin’s restoration project began in 1995, but the population has been slow growing, with currently around 170 animals. The state is hoping the additional elk restocking can eventually help them get over 1000 elk in the state.”
Overall, however, restorations remain highly successful. “RMEF plays a key role in helping states reintroduce elk,” says Henning. “We have also helped expand elk populations and suitable habitat in other states. Thanks to these thriving herds, people are hunting elk again in places like Arkansas, Kansas, Nebraska and Pennsylvania.”
While the overall North American elk news is good, Henning admits there are areas of concern. “Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a growing issue nationally,” he says. “The disease occurs in members of the deer family, including elk. The overall incidence rate is lower than that of whitetails and mule deer, but elk can get it, too.”
CWD is a transmissible neurological disease similar to mad cow disease in cattle. It is characterized by poor body condition, behavioral abnormalities and death. There is a lot about CWD that we don’t know. Research needs to be ramped up but some evidence suggests that where prevalent, CWD can have long-term negative effects on deer and elk.
“Areas with high concentrations of elk, such as winter feeding grounds, could be impacted by CWD,” he says. “And, while there is no documentation of the disease being transmitted to humans, some worry that the spread of CWD could impact hunter participation.”
Hoof disease is another malady RMEF is keeping tabs on. “Observations of elk with this disease have increased dramatically in southwest Washington in the past decade,” Henning says. “The hooves rot, slough off, and the animal ends up walking around on stumps. There’s no treatment and it’s highly infectious among elk. Scientists believe the bacteria that cause the disease persist in moist soil and are carried to new areas on the hooves of infected elk.”
An overabundance of predators can also affect elk populations. “Predators are definitely having impacts, though most are localized,” he says. “For example, we saw the Northern Yellowstone herd go from 19,000 elk in the early 2000s to 4,500 animals today, and attribute a significant part of the decline to grizzly bears, wolves and mountain lions. Other trouble spots include Great Lakes states affected by an expanding wolf population, which is why we’re always advocating responsible predator management through hunting and trapping.”
Toward that end, RMEF funds research projects, works with Congress and state agencies, tracks legislative matters, educates the public and rallies members on predator-related issues to the benefit of all wildlife species.
RMEF also focuses on habitat issues. To date, the group has used land acquisitions, easements and donations to protect or enhance 7.1 million acres since 1984. Its goals include permanently protecting an average of 35,000 acres and enhancing another 115,000 acres per year.
“We also work closely with public land managers to maintain and improve the quality of existing elk habitat,” Henning adds. “In many forested areas—both in the eastern U.S and in the West— forest managers aren’t cutting enough trees to produce the mix of timber, grasses and meadows elk require to thrive. RMEF offers advice and assistance to implement land-management practices that are more beneficial to elk and other wildlife.”
Henning invites anyone passionate about elk and elk hunting to join the organization and start helping make a difference today. “We have more than 500 chapters and 222,000 members nationwide,” he says. “There’s a chapter and ways to get involved near you.”
Besides enjoying the opportunity to meet fellow elk hunters, Henning promises you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you’re helping ensure the unmistakable sound of a bull elk’s bugle echoes through the forests of North America for generations to come.