Imagine this: You’re an elk grazing peacefully on an Eastern Kentucky mountainside.
Hunting season is over. You made it!
Wait a minute. What’s that sound?
What’s that thing in the sky?
Why is it chasing you away from the rest of the herd?
Well, elk, that’s a helicopter, and it’s about to drop a net on you.
A man hops out of the helicopter and binds your legs together, blindfolds you and wrestles you into a bag.
The next thing you know, you’re airborne.
Where are they taking you?
Don’t worry, elk, it’ll all work out.
Twenty years after Kentucky first reintroduced elk, the state is now taking steps to more evenly distribute its herd throughout the 16 counties fish and wildlife officials refer to as “the elk zone.”
This month, that was accomplished with the help of a helicopter whose crew captured the elk that were to be relocated.
Mark Marraccini, communications director for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the department worked with the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation to relocate about 100 elk to Bell County, where the foundation is working to bring an Appalachian Wildlife Center to a reclaimed mining site.
The foundation’s goal is to open the multimillion-dollar facility in the summer of 2019, and part of its draw will be elk.
“Elk are more than just hunting animals,” Marraccini said. “Elk also is a huge tourism draw for that part of the state.”
Elk roamed Kentucky until the mid-1800s, when overhunting and habitat destruction wiped them from the landscape.
In 1997, the state Fish and Wildlife Resources Commission approved a program aimed at bringing them back.
In the first five years of the repopulation effort, 1,551 elk were captured in six western states and released in Kentucky’s elk zone, Marraccini said.
Today, the state’s herd numbers about 11,000 and is the largest east of the Rocky Mountains. They graze on 4.2 million acres, about a million acres of which is reclaimed strip-mining land.
Marraccini said elk are social animals that like to graze, and the reclaimed land has worked well for them.
“It speaks to how well our herd has become established,” he said.
But, he said, “there are pockets where they’re not as densely populated,” like Bell County, which is at the far southern end of the elk zone.
Hence, the relocation effort. Marraccini said the state recently took elk from sites in about nine counties where there were plenty of elk to bolster the Bell County population.
Not all were captured with a helicopter.
Before the weather got super cold earlier this month, Marraccini said wildlife officials set up corrals with food inside them. In those instances, the elk are drawn to the bait and “we can just close the gate.”
Marraccini said the wildlife foundation contracted with the helicopter crew to capture the others.
“It actually worked quite well,” he said.
Once they were netted and secured in a sling for transport, the elk were taken by helicopter to a staging area where wildlife biologists and technicians tagged them and drew blood. Some were outfitted with GPS or radio telemetry tracking collars. Then they were loaded into trailers and driven to their new home outside Pineville.
Mike Mullins, who operates Big Branch Cabin Rentals in Knott County, said he was sitting on his porch Tuesday when the crew arrived and collected five elk.
Mullins said a herd grazes on his 300 acres, and during elk season, his cabins stay booked up with hunters every weekend.
Other visitors come just to watch the animals.
“When they start bugling in the fall is the best time,” Mullins said. “They’ll be all the way on the other side of the mountain and you can hear them.”
Mullins said it took only about 7 to 10 minutes from the time an elk was netted until it was waiting in the trailer.
“What shocked me was how fast and efficient it was,” he said. “It was like an assembly line almost.”
Though he’s spent years watching them, Mullins said it was his first time petting an elk.
“I thought it was amazing,” he said.
Mullins said the helicopter operators told him they’d been in Maine the week before helping relocate moose.
Marraccini said this is the first time Kentucky has used a helicopter to move elk, but it’s not uncommon to use helicopters for wildlife relocation efforts in western states. The cost of the helicopter use wasn’t immediately available.
When Kentucky was sourcing elk in Utah, New Mexico and other states to start its herd 20 years ago, he said helicopters were sometimes used to capture them.
Mullins said that when the elk had the blindfolds taken off and were loaded into the trailers for transport, “they were just calm as could be.”
He said he was surprised that the elk were so placid after being captured.
The elk was unavailable for comment.