Week 32. Appalachian Wildlife Foundation: Kentucky Elk
When Daniel Boone and his long hunters headed up the Warrior’s Path and over the Cumberland Gap, they gazed down upon endless savannahs punctuated by rolling woodlands and canebreak groves. Kentucky was a land so rich in game, wrote Boone biographer Robert Morgan, that “buffalo and elk, deer and turkeys, practically stationed themselves in front of a rifle sight.”
As settlers moved in, they found another valuable natural resource in coal that sustained the livelihood of central Appalachia for generations. Today, many mines have completed their commercial lifecycle but are coming full circle and providing a new use as a refuge for many of the region’s native wildlife.
David Ledford helps lead the restoration of those mines as head of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, which works with coal suppliers and other private landowners to reclaim abandoned mine lands and restore habitat for elk, deer, turkey, quail, and other game.
It turns out reclaimed abandoned mine lands can provide ideal grasslands for elk or thicket cover for quail, and Kentucky now boasts the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi and some of the healthiest populations of game in the region. Boone himself might recognize some of the native landscapes around the old mines.
I caught up with David recently on an August evening to hear more about the historical long hunters, the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation’s restoration work, and of course the best time to hunt the wily wapiti in Kentucky. Below are my questions in bold, followed by his answers.
What's the mission of the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation?
The mission is finding solutions for wildlife restoration in central and northern Appalachia -- really, wherever coal is mined and oil and gas are produced. The focus is restoration of wildlife within the context of energy development.
What we found when we started was that there really was not one wildlife conservation group that was focused on that, and not one conversation organization that had workable knowledge about the restoration process within the current regulatory structure.
Our focus now is developing the Appalachian Wildlife Center, which will include a 12,000 acre refuge and 80,000 square foot visitor center.
What species do you focus on?
I got into it initially when I was doing work with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and reintroducing elk back into Kentucky in 1997. When I got involved in it, I saw these big mined landscapes, and I really quickly learned that if you hunt and live in the region, you know that the best deer hunting, turkey hunting, and small game hunting (quail and rabbits) was on the old coal mines. They had the best habitat with the edge effect and ground cover. With the big coal mines, you had these massive food plots.
What is ideal elk habitat?
In Kentucky, it’s a mosaic of reclaimed mine land with a clover and orchard grass mix, some native herbaceous vegetation, with some forest. Ideal elk cover would be about 30% forest and 70% grasslands, with limited human access.
Elk are grazing animals, more so than deer which are browsers, and when given the chance to be picky, they get picky. But time has shown that an orchard grass clover mix of forage is highly preferred. Some mined landscapes provide thousands of acres of this type of forage. But you also get natural plant succession and these areas start being colonized with blackberries, and other native vegetation. This creates good habitat for rabbits and Northern Bobwhite quail at a large enough scale that populations can thrive.
What is the history of elk in Kentucky and central Appalachia?
The elk were here when the settlers arrived, and there were even buffalo too. In the mid 1700s, Dr. Thomas Walker came through the Cumberland Gap and surveyed the land and wrote about all of the game. The long hunters would take off on 6 months to a 1 year journey to explore the new West, they would only pack two days’ worth of provisions because you could kill enough to feed yourself.
In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker and set off with a party for 7-8 months, and they wrote in their journal everything they ate. They killed 14 deer and 7 elk, but they killed 56 bears. They also talked about all of the turkey and partridge, though I’m not sure if they were talking about quail or grouse. There wrote about flocks of turkeys that never ended!
It wasn’t only for food either. They killed the elk, deer, and bear for hides too and use them for currency. Herds of elk and buffalo would congregate at these big massive salt licks on the western side of the Cumberland Gap. Sadly, it only took about 100 years to wipe them all out.
When were the current elk populations reintroduced, and where did they come from?
Kentucky got them from Utah, North Dakota, New Mexico, Arizona, Oregon, and Kansas. In five years, they stocked over 1,550, and today there are herds estimated at about 10,000 in 14 counties.
When is the "peak" rut and/or best time to hunt elk?
The last weekend of September into the second weekend of October is generally the peak rut. That three week period is generally the best, but it can be drastically effected by the weather. I’ve been on hunts in the first week of October when its 90 degrees and everything is happening at night, and then a cold front comes it drops 30 degrees overnight, and everything starts going off.
What are some other hunting opportunities that are unique or exceptionally good in your region?
In southern West Virginia generally there is great whitetail hunting, and in there are six counties in southern West Virginia that are archery only where it is exceptionally good. The combination of archery-only and the coal restoration habitat makes for really excellent hunting.
The rabbit hunting is also really good. Actually, historically, grouse hunting was a big deal around here, but the ruffled grouse population has just been terrible.
The turkey hunting is also really good, and there are huntable numbers of bobwhite quail. They have a big enough population that they’re holding their own. I could take you down to counties in eastern Kentucky this afternoon where you’ll hear more bobwhite quail whistling around the old coal mines that you will anywhere in western Kentucky farm country.
~ 52 Week Season ~