Reintroducing Elk in the Eastern U.S.

Before European settlers invaded North America, elk inhabited most of the Continent.  By the onset of the 20th Century, these majestic mammals had been extirpated from all areas east of the Rocky Mountain corridor; overhunting and habitat destruction were primarily responsible for their loss.

Today, elk (or wapiti) are most abundant in Colorado (where the population exceeds 200,000) but large herds can be found in all of the Western States.  Beginning in the early 1900s. some elk were relocated to north-central Pennsylvania and the northeastern section of Michigan's Lower Peninsula; an out-of-control elk population in the Yellowstone region (augmented by the extirpation of wolves) provided the source for these early reintroductions.  In recent decades, elk have been reintroduced to the Buffalo National River Valley of northern Arkansas (1980s) and to the Appalachian Plateau of eastern Kentucky (1997-2002); the latter program has been especially "successful," leading to a current population of 10,000 elk that is expanding into West Virginia and feeding other reintroduction projects, including those in Wisconsin, Missouri and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

As I discussed in a previous post (see Elk in Michigan), the reintroduction of native animals appears, on the surface, to be a laudable exercise.  Unfortunately, unless the prior ecosystem is made whole (e.g. by the reintroduction of wolves as well), the reintroduced species (elk in this case) soon overpopulate their environment, altering the ecosystem and threatening the welfare of other native plants and animals.  Since the reintroduction of predators is not generally accepted by ranchers, farmers and the human population at large, control of the reintroduced elk herd is turned over to hunters; of course, this group is more than willing to provide assistance and their hunting fees and seasonal influx are welcomed by the States and local communities.  While many look upon these reintroduction projects as conservation programs, some of us sense that hunting organizations and cash-strapped governments are leading the restoration of elk across the Eastern U.S.