Kentucky's elk population close to 10,000 target

VEST — Kentucky's elk herd population is close to the 10,000 state officials want, and that means some rural residents have learned some lessons in the past 12 years.

Such as elk really like to eat the expensive Austrian pines planted in neat rows bordering your yard.

And elk shedding their antlers will scrape against your house and rip the siding right off. They'll also knock the headstones in the family cemetery off-kilter.

Biologists from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife have tried to start counting car collisions with elk. They confirmed 22 elk killed by cars in the past year. That's far fewer than deer collisions, but local residents see elk as a bigger problem — they are larger and bolder.

"I think the problem is there's too many people, and too much traffic up and down those roads, for the number of elk that are in the mountains," said Nelson Sizemore, a Pineville hardware store owner who hit an elk in his pickup at 50 miles an hour a few months ago. "I think they have populated a lot faster than they intended."

Sizemore said his was one of about a dozen wrecks in an eight- to 10-mile stretch of Ky. 221 near his home in Bell County.

"They're really not afraid of people. They'll stand there and let you run into them," he said of the elk.

This year, Department of Fish and Wildlife officials have taken extra measures to help elk live peaceably with humans. Some residents say officials need to do more.

Early in the spring, biologists trapped about 45 elk in the Stoney Fork area of Bell County and moved the animals over a mountain to an old strip mine site. The department has distributed noise-makers that residents can use to scare away the 700-pound animals.

An extra hunting period was held for locals in January to help control the elk population in specific areas.

"It is amazing how much of an attraction they are," said Knott County resident Jack Parker, who owns about 500 acres of reclaimed mine land where elk love to wander and eat tasty vegetation. "I'm just dazzled at the attraction the wildlife has to people."

The Parkers live next door to the community center in Vest where women collect elk antlers and droppings to make beads for jewelry to sell. The couple allow elk viewing on their property.

Parker said he thinks the elk are a boon to tourism — Knott County calls itself "Kentucky's elk capital" — but residents have to deal with the nuisance.

"This year they've done more damage to our property than they've ever done," he said.

Parker and his wife, Flora, have fenced their heirloom apple tree and vegetable garden this year. Flora Parker said she has watched elk wander right up onto the retired couple's back deck and stare down the house cats. Every morning, she gets up and counts the divots the elk have made in her flower beds and lawn.

As the weather has warmed this spring, and the vegetation greens up on the mountaintops, elk have moved out of the hollows back up to the swaths of reclaimed strip mines. Fish and Wildlife workers also have spent days "hazing" the elk with noisemakers to drive them out of undesirable areas.

Some local residents feed elk to attract them for viewing, and that needs to stop, said Sgt. Ray Lawson, a conservation officer who works in Bell County.

He said elk will eat anything green during the winter, and they find the most green down in valleys, near homes. Lawson said elk also like to lick the de-icing salt off the roads in the winter.

"If they find an area where they're not hunted, they gather there," said Tina Brunjes, big game program coordinator for the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Some residents would like to see more elk hunting to control the population.

Last year, the Fish and Wildlife Department issued 1,000 elk tags in its random drawing (46,000 hunters applied for a tag), and 778 elk were taken. It also held a special two-week hunt in January to try to help control the elk population in two small areas. The extra hunt was limited to hunters from a 16-county area where the elk live.

For the upcoming season, the department dropped the number of tags to 800 but will again have the late season hunt.

"It worked really well in Knott County," Brunjes said.

She said the special hunt will continue as long as elk continue to be a nuisance in particular areas. Fish and Wildlife officials are working with coal and timber companies to allow hunting on more of their property.

Bell County Judge-Executive Albey Brock said the department hasn't done enough to ease angry feelings among local non-hunters. He said many residents complain that the department puts too much effort into enforcing ATV bans on wildlife management areas and not enough into mitigating damage done by the animals.

"They can't ride ATVs because of the elk, but they can't raise a garden because of the elk," Brock said.

Jack Parker said he's not a hunter and doesn't like to see animals hurt. He likes the elk, but he thinks they need to be controlled.

"I feel like they've gotten too numerous," Parker said. "The problem could probably be alleviated if they increased the lottery for the hunting."