Howard Whiteman walks slowly in his black Toyota Prius, craning his neck to see what is beyond the rolling meadows in the nearby woods. He wishes he had brought binoculars.
It slowly makes its way around a closed 700-acre elk and bison prairie in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, the only public land in western Kentucky where a moose can be seen and heard its sound. distinctive bugle.
Moose were hard to come by early that October morning, but that didn’t surprise the athlete.
âFor such a large animal, they can disappear so quickly,â he said. “A lot of other species are like that, but for such a big animal to do that, it’s pretty amazing.”
Whiteman grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania with reminders of how elk were treated differently in the area; he inherited from his grandfather an old book of game laws from the early 1900s when elk were reintroduced and hunted in Keystone State.
But in Kentucky, the eastern subspecies of elk native to the state disappeared at the end of the 19th century, over-hunted and their habitat degraded as the coal industry increasingly impacts the land. It took more than a century later for efforts to consolidate to bring them back to the state.
The Tennessee Valley Authority decided to establish the Elk and Bison Prairie in the mid-1990s to reintroduce native grasses and native animals to the area for educational purposes, and across the state, officials of the Kentucky wildlife were well on their way to reintroducing elk to eastern Kentucky as well.
What began in 1997 with just over 1,500 western US elk released in eastern Kentucky has become a conservation success story in the eyes of wildlife officials: the largest elk herd east of the Mississippi River, with about 16,000 elk. in 16 counties in eastern Kentucky last year.
Whiteman got to see one of these large mammals up close on a hunting trip in 2014, earning a coveted state hunting license. See the hoofprints, see the bark rubbing off on the trees through the woods and hear the bugles marked him.
The Murray State University professor of conservation and wildlife biology credits this trip as a gateway to a larger idea: why not connect public and private lands with easements. to create a corridor through the Appalachians for elk and other species to thrive?
“If we restore some of these wilderness areas, not just for the elk but only for the people, we could create sustainable forestry that could potentially boost this economy, or at least provide some of the jobs that are just destined for the coal mines.” I’m not coming back, âWhiteman said.
He argues that the creation of such vast conservation corridor because the elk could not only provide habitat for a myriad of species – songbirds, stingers and mayflies, to name a few – but it could also provide a economic boost to the Appalachians through hunting and tourism and the management of conserved lands. In a region that has seen significant losses in charcoal production and jobs, he believes precious mammals could be part of the region’s future.
Conservation advocates, biologists and wildlife officials who have been on the ground since the restoration of eastern Kentucky elk began see the potential of Whiteman’s idea with the benefits to biodiversity and the species connectivity that a corridor could offer. But the reality on the ground of working with local communities and the resources available could make the ambitious idea a rise.
A restoration success
Chris Garland, a native of eastern Kentucky, remembers graduating from college and starting work at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources in the 1990s. Plans to move elk from the states of the ‘West, with the help of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, were already in progress.
âI remember when I was a kid I would go watch some of the white-tailed deer releases that people before me did and were amazed at it,â Garland said. “It was a little surreal that we are restoring a species here that hasn’t been here for hundreds of years, it was pretty amazing.”
Garland is now the director of the department’s wildlife division, having also worked with the Appalachian Grouse and various wildlife management areas. He said he sees the value of Whiteman’s idea for habitat connectivity, citing the ongoing restorations of mussel species in Kentucky as an example. But there is also the obvious economic impact that elk bring.
âOn average, a Kentucky elk hunter last year and his assistant – thus, the people accompanying him – spent an average of almost $ 6,000 in total on an elk hunt,â said Gabe Jenkins, who has studied deer and elk as a biologist in the department for over a decade.
These expenses understand housing, hunting outfitters and taxidermy work which, multiplied by hundreds of elk hunters in the area each year, can have a significant economic impact, Jenkins said. The ministry also derives significant revenue from the tens of thousands of hunting license application fees the ministry receives each year for the chance to hunt elk.
Jenkins also said that states such as West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia have followed suit with their own herds of elk. Jenkins sees the potential for an elk corridor idea given the existing herds in the Appalachians, but he also sees challenges in implementing such an idea.
About 95% of Kentucky’s land is privately owned, and some of that land would need to be put into conservation for such a corridor to be implemented. Generally, conservation easements are an agreement between a private land owner and a government organization or entity to restrict the use of land for conservation purposes in return for incentives, including tax breaks.
Jenkins said that in eastern Kentucky, determining who owns the land to negotiate such an easement can be difficult, especially with land associated with mining. He said sometimes parcels of land may have multiple heirs, or different entities may have different interests in a property’s mineral or forest rights. It would also be important to get input from the larger community who sometimes use private land for recreational purposes, he said.
“It’s not as simple as the landowner and the tenant and the ore [rights] and all that, but it’s also the people who are on the road, âJenkins said. âWe need to take all of these voices into consideration and listen to them all. And that is a challenge.
For other conservationists, they see Whiteman’s idea aligned with a larger vision of protecting land and biodiversity in the eastern United States. But the funding available for an idea as large as a conservation corridor is only modest.
Dian Osbourne, director of protection at the Nature Conservancy of Kentucky, said stakeholders involved in such a large, multi-state project should get creative with private landowners to develop such a corridor beyond l outright purchase of the land. She said that federal funding, like the Land and Water Conservation Fund, is absolutely necessary to help fund conservation efforts across the country, but more resources would likely be needed. White has proposed, in part, that federal funding for the infrastructure under review be directed towards conservation.
âThere is a corridor that needs protection for this connectivity. You know, the means to go about it? There are probably a lot of different ways to slice and cut this, âOsbourne said. “And there are a lot of different partnerships that it will probably take for this connectivity to work.”
Nature Conservation has been worked before to put more land in the Appalachians into conservation, stating that its goal is to work alongside local communities and indigenous peoples to protect biodiversity and habitat across the region. Their vision also aligns with the work of the Wildlands Network, including the vision of a eastern conservation corridor partly inspired by Whiteman’s idea.
For a biologist who has been studying eastern Kentucky elk since their reintroduction, he wonders what the long-term impacts of an elk expansion in the Appalachians might be. John Cox of the University of Kentucky notes the ecological damage that dense deer populations have suffered in some eastern states, from overeating and impacting plants, including ginseng in West Virginia.
“[Deer] change the trajectory of forests in terms of species that survive and can grow into mature trees, âCox said. âWhen do you cross the threshold where the impact becomes worrying, from an ecological point of view, that it’s doing damage? And that might be difficult to disentangle.
Either way, Cox hopes that as eastern Kentucky and other parts of the Appalachians determine how best to use their land as the region moves away from coal, community stakeholders are involved in the discussion.
âWhat will be there for people economically in 20, 30, 40 years? Cox said. âTourism and forestry appear to be the most sustainable and compatible natural resource practices for the central Appalachians. “