Back from Brink: Elk and Bison Roam Again in Eastern U.S.
February 23, 2017
They have been absent from so many places, for so long, that many Americans assume they were never there.
But now, for the first time since the 19th century, small herds of elk and bison have returned to the eastern half of the country. Even so, for two of America's most iconic big-game animals, the homecoming has been slow, controversial and anything but assured.
Reintroductions of both species have gathered momentum in recent years, as various groups have sought to bring them back to portions of their original ranges. Some of those efforts have been much more successful — and welcomed — than others. But now that we have buffalo in Illinois and Indiana, and elk bugling in Pennsylvania and Arkansas, the questions remain: How many more should be reintroduced, where can they roam, and how should they be managed?
In the early days of our country, it would have been hard to believe that either creature might someday vanish from half of the continent. The first Europeans to arrive in North America encountered a wide variety of unfamiliar birds and animals. Two of the most noteworthy, bison and elk, inhabited nearly all of what is now the Lower 48 United States, and were a common sight for early explorers. Described as "magnificent beastes," they fascinated everyone who laid eyes upon them.
"These Monsters are found to weigh from 1600 to 2400 Weight," wrote English naturalist John Lawson of buffalo in his book "A New Voyage to Carolina" in 1709. "I do not think it so good as our Beef."
He described bull elk that carried "horns (that) exceed in Weight all creatures that the new World affords."
Although accounts vary, eastern elk likely ranged from Georgia to southern Canada and west to the Mississippi River. They were a different sub-species than the Rocky Mountain elk, and larger too, weighing as much as 1,000 pounds and carrying antlers up to 6 feet in length.
Eastern bison were actually smaller than their Plains cousins, but roamed across an even larger land area than eastern elk. Bones have been found from coastal Louisiana to central Florida and north all the way to southern New England.
ELK AND BISON: BY THE NUMBERS
- $30: Cost per elk purchased by the Pennsylvania Game Commission in 1913
- 38,935: Number of hunters who applied for a Kentucky elk tag in 2014
- .000009: Percent chance of drawing a Michigan bull elk tag in 2014
- $85,000: Amount spent for a Pennsylvania elk tag at a 2016 auction
- 6.5: Height in feet of an average bison at its shoulder
- 30,000: Number of bison living on public land throughout the U.S.
- 377 5/8: Boone & Crockett score of Kentucky's largest bull elk
Whether or not bison and elk were as tasty as Old World beef was irrelevant to the first explorers and settlers. What mattered is that a single animal provided hundreds of pounds of vital nourishment. Bison proved to be not only an adequate substitute for beef, but were also easy prey even for the settlers' inaccurate and rudimentary firearms. As another explorer noted in a letter sent back to England, bison "are very easie to be killed, in regard they are heavy, slow, and not so wild as other beasts of the wildernesse.'"
Their docile nature proved to be their downfall. By the end of the 18th century bison were extirpated from North Carolina. The last known bison in Georgia was killed in 1801 and the last two east of the Mississippi River were shot in Wisconsin in 1832. It didn't take much longer for elk to follow the same path. The last known eastern elk was killed in 1877 in Pennsylvania. As settlers pushed westward, they also pushed elk and bison ahead of them, shooting the animals at will for food and clothing.
Not long after they had been wiped out in the eastern United States, bison and elk were imperiled in the Great Plains as well. Buffalo were shot by the score on a daily basis and sent back east on rail cars. By 1889, the population had fallen from an estimated 30 million throughout North America to fewer than 1,000, with a quarter of those in zoos. What few elk remained lived deep within the most rugged sections of the Rocky Mountains.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
As bison and elk numbers dwindled, a handful of visionaries called for a halt to the ongoing slaughter. Their voices, however, were little more than background noise drowned out by westward expansion, industrialization, a civil war and the eventual reconstruction of a divided and war-torn country. Few people had the forethought, the resources or even the basic knowledge of how to restore decimated wildlife populations. Even fewer, it seemed, saw the need.
Among the most outspoken and prominent voices in the conservation movement was Theodore Roosevelt, who, along with Bronx Zoo director William T. Hornaday, founded the American Bison Society in 1905. The group's goal was simple: to prevent the extinction of the American bison.
One of their first moves was to ship 15 buffalo from the Bronx Zoo to the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma. In 1908, President Roosevelt successfully urged Congress to establish the National Bison Range in Montana.
Before the ABS was formed, though, Austin Corbin, a New Hampshire native and New York developer, was also dismayed by the impending loss of bison and other wildlife species. In 1890, he established the Blue Mountain Game Reserve in southern New Hampshire. The 36,000-acre property would be home not only to a growing herd of buffalo bought from private farms, but also to a wide variety of other game and non-game wildlife, including mule deer, elk, moose, pronghorn antelope and even caribou. Most species soon died, but the elk and buffalo prospered until 1940, when an outbreak of brucellosis forced the preserve managers to kill all the buffalo.
A handful of other, less-organized efforts were attempted, including the release of three bull and three cow buffalo in eastern North Carolina in 1919. Two calves were born and additional adults were released, but the fledgling herd failed to take hold and ultimately disappeared about a decade later.
Elk reintroductions had marginal success during that early era, as well. The first eastern state to reintroduce elk was Pennsylvania, which brought 50 elk from Yellowstone in 1913. At the time, elk had recovered remarkably in places where they were protected, so park managers were eager to ship as many animals away as possible. More elk were brought to Pennsylvania a few years later, and a small population existed for decades. Some were shot by farmers who grew weary of the big animals devouring their crops. Others were killed by poachers.
Similar programs were attempted in other states. In 1916, 55 elk were shipped by rail car from Yellowstone to Alabama. A prediction by the state game department said "they would multiply into numbers that will stagger the imagination." The animals were split up and sent to four counties. Ten of a herd of 17 broke through the fence on the first night and escaped. Six years later, no elk remained. All fell victim to disease, poaching or accidents.
Virginia also attempted a short-lived restoration effort in 1919 when the game commission released an unknown number of elk into 11 western counties. Two small herds managed to survive, and hunting seasons were held off and on between 1922 and 1960. But the last elk died around 1970.
Those first efforts to restore elk and bison to their historic range were ill-conceived and poorly executed. Now, however, biologists from state and federal agencies, along with a variety of privately funded conservation organizations, are using sound science, along with public support and ample funding, to build elk herds where they haven't roamed for more than a century.
Kentucky, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Michigan, Arkansas and Wisconsin now have free-ranging elk herds, thanks to efforts by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, state wildlife agencies and conservation-minded hunters. Elk have spread into West Virginia, too, and the first wild elk in nearly 275 years was sighted in western South Carolina. It likely traveled from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where a herd of about 200 animals now lives.
THANKS, BUT NO
Not everyone likes the idea of a herd of 800-pound animals in their neighborhoods. At least three states — Maryland, Illinois and West Virginia — considered the idea of restoring elk populations, but were met with objections from locals. Elk don't respect property boundaries and will gladly eat a field of corn if they have the opportunity. Illinois hunters were also concerned that free-roaming elk would somehow harm the state's world-class deer hunting, including the potential spread of chronic wasting disease in particular. Always fatal, CWD has been found in western elk and can spread to wild whitetails. Based on that, Virginia allowed hunters to shoot any elk that wandered in from Kentucky for several years as a way to protect their deer herd.
"This was at the very beginning of the whole chronic wasting disease issue. We knew Kentucky was importing elk from states where the disease had been discovered and there was no way at the time to determine if these animals were disease-free," said Allen Boynton, the terrestrial wildlife program manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). "It was a risk that we just did not want to take at the time, so we did not want elk in Virginia."
The VDGIF has had an about-face since then, however, and is now deep into its own elk restoration program. Somewhat ironically, the state received 85 elk between 2012 and 2014 from Kentucky. The agency's goal is to have at least 400 animals in the coal fields of southwest Virginia by 2020, along with a limited hunting season.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
The biggest restoration program, by far, has occurred in eastern Kentucky, where an estimated 10,000 elk now roam. The program has been so successful the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife awards 1,000 elk tags annually through a lottery, which attracts upwards of 25,000 applicants each year.
Ironically, Kentucky's program was initially funded not by hunters, but by poachers. In 1996, 27 men were convicted of hunting doves over bait. Tom Baker, then-chairman of the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission, urged the judge and prosecutor to allow the KDFW to use the money generated through fines to fund an elk reintroduction study. Baker was also the chairman of the Kentucky chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) at the time, and had been discussing the idea with other KDFW staff.
Soon after, 29 elk captured from the Rocky Mountains were released into a 700-acre enclosure at Land Between the Lakes. The animals prospered, setting the stage for a larger program. But where?
"There were some dandy places in western Kentucky where elk would work," former KDFW deer program leader John Phillips recalled in an interview with Kentucky Afield. "But there was too much farmland that elk could damage, and the residents would never accept them. The only area that looked suitable was southeastern Kentucky."
There, reclaimed strip mines were covered with a variety of grasses and emerging young forests, all prime elk habitat. What's more, there was little agriculture, few people and millions of acres of land. So in December 1997, an estimated 4,000 people gathered to watch the trailer gates open on what would become the first of hundreds of transplanted elk. Buoyed by a pledge of $1 million by the RMEF, Kentucky's elk herd has flourished.
Although Pennsylvania's herd is much smaller than Kentucky's, it's also thriving. About 1,000 animals roam across state and private land in west-central Pennsylvania, thanks in part to conservation-minded hunters and local residents who have embraced the elk. The state game commission sold 108 elk tags in 2014, including 81 cow tags, after more than 20,000 people applied. Wildlife managers want to sustain the herd at its current level.
WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM
Buffalo conservation efforts have also met with good success. The animals were returned to the Illinois prairie in 2014 when 20 were released on the Nature Conservancy-owned Nachusa Grasslands near Dixon, about 95 miles from Chicago. Another 27 buffalo were released on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, also in Illinois. Last October, bison also returned to Indiana, at Kankakee Sands in Newton County. Another herd exists at Broken Kettle Grasslands in Iowa.
Bison restoration efforts, however, will likely never match the success of those for elk. When the first explorers arrived, they found vast expanses of long-leaf pine savannahs. The trees were spaced far apart with lush stands of grass growing beneath. Lightning-sparked fires, along with fire set by native Americans, kept the habitat in ideal shape for buffalo. The animals themselves helped perpetuate the grasses and keep the forests at bay. Today's eastern landscape of mature oak and pine forests isn't suitable buffalo habitat; nor is much of their historic Plains range.
Also, bison are big animals that require lots of room to roam. The sheer number of people, roads and fences prevent herds of buffalo from traversing the landscape. That's why, with few exceptions, it's almost impossible to re-establish free-ranging buffalo east of the Mississippi and even in much of the West. Many will be confined to large fenced tracts.
But without the foresight of hunters and other conservationists more than 100 years ago, those buffalo might not even exist today. Men like Teddy Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and George Bird Grinnell, all avid hunters, looked into the future and saw a country without them. It was a vision they refused to accept. Thanks to them, and others who shared their vision, these remarkable big-game animals that awed the early settlers are still roaming across America.