Traditional thinking has always said "Go west!" for elk, but hunters nowadays are rethinking tradition.
Ask bowhunters what their favorite animal to hunt is and most will answer deer. However, a growing number will pause and then say something positive about elk hunting. Every fall, more and more bowhunters travel westward to hunt elk because rutting, bugling bulls stir their souls.
They fly, drive, and some (myself, for example) even go west via Amtrak. No matter how you get there, hunting elk is one of the most exciting things you can do with a bow. However, the time is coming when significant numbers of hunters won't have to travel out West to bowhunt for elk. That's because huntable populations of elk are growing throughout the Midwest and in an increasing number of states east of the Mississippi River.
The eastward migration of elk began slowly but has mushroomed in recent years. Beginning in 1997, Kentucky brought in 1,550 elk from the West and released them at eight sites. The original goal was to reach a population of 7,000 by 2019, but the herd topped that number by 2008. One reason for this rapid growth is an extremely high calf survival rate of 92 percent. That success has led to today's population of 10,000, with 800 permits issued to hunters.
In neighboring Tennessee, native elk disappeared in the mid-1880s, but now elk are back. In 2000, Tennessee released 167 animals obtained from Alberta and in 2001, another 86. That herd has not shown the rapid growth seen in Kentucky, but the current population of 400 animals warrants five hunting permits per year. In 2009, all five hunters took elk.
Between 1981 and 1985, Arkansas released 112 elk in Newton County. When the population reached 500 elk in 1998, the state began to allow limited hunting. In 2009, hunters killed 21 elk for a 42 percent success rate.
And so it goes, from state to state. Oklahoma now issues 330 elk hunting permits, Nebraska 272, North Dakota 561, Kansas 27, Minnesota 11, Michigan 230, and Pennsylvania 51.
The latest three states to show an interest in elk are Missouri, Virginia, and West Virginia. Missouri had early interest, but the chronic wasting disease (CWD) scare put that on hold. Now that scientists have developed a test for CWD on live animals, Missouri is writing a proposal for reintroduction. The draft plan calls for a spring 2011 release of 150 elk. As is typical in most states, more than 80 percent of the citizens in Missouri favor restoration of elk to their state.
In the fall of 2010, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries approved a program to stock 75 elk in western Virginia, and the release is expected in early 2012. Virginia has always had a small, remnant population of elk but has encouraged hunters to harvest them. Perhaps because a tourism benefit has been noted in Kentucky, and because the fear of CWD has diminished, Virginia officials now want to increase the elk herd in their state. Surveys show that 61 percent of Virginians in the release area feel elk restoration is a good idea, 14 percent disagree, and 25 percent are undecided. Those in favor believe elk would restore some of Virginia's history and increase biodiversity. Those opposed are concerned about auto collisions, disease transmission, and crop damage.
West Virginia is taking a more cautious approach. A few elk from Kentucky occasionally cross the Ohio River into southern areas of West Virginia. Initially, West Virginia had a concern about CWD. With that now reduced, the DNR has proposed an elk management area in the southern part of West Virginia, but no transplanting of elk will occur. This "passive" management approach apparently means that elk crossing into West Virginia will be observed and managed as needed.
It will take time for elk numbers to grow in regions east of the traditional western elk states, but as more eastern states actively stock and manage elk, the call for elk from hunters and nonhunters alike will continue with financial support from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. With that will come more bowhunting opportunities. Harvests will be limited, but the sound of elk bugling in the East will be music to the ears of all bowhunters and their families.