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Elk restoration efforts paying dividends

Larry Woody • Sep 13, 2017 at 8:30 AM

When the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency launched its elk-restoration program in December, 2000, its goal was to do for elk what it had done for whitetail deer and wild turkeys.

Deer and turkeys at one time were virtually extinct in most areas of the state, but thanks to the efforts of the TWRA and various support groups, today they are abundant in almost every county.

Elk, like deer and turkeys, are indigenous to Tennessee but the last wild one was believed to have been killed over a century ago.

The elk comeback started with 50 animals imported from Canada, and through continued stocking and natural reproduction the herd quickly grew to between 400-500 animals. In 2009 biologists approved a limited bulls-only hunt.

Since then, 33 bull elk have been legally harvested (one was killed during last year’s hunt in an unapproved area and was therefore not legal). That harvest number is sure to rise during October’s 9th annual hunt.

Two of the elk tagged on past hunts were taken by local hunters. During the 2013 hunt Lebanon’s Mike Graves killed one of the biggest bulls ever harvested. Two years later Hartsville’s Clay Oldham also brought home a prize bull.

Graves, a veteran elk hunter who had taken four elk on previous hunts in Colorado and New Mexico, said the hunt in the rugged wilds of East Tennessee was every bit as challenging – if not more-so – than his Western hunts.

No local hunters were drawn for this fall’s hunt, for which 15 permits were issued. There are seven archery permits, seven gun permits and one Youth Hunt permit.

Fourteen of the permits were awarded by a drawing from among 8,664 applicants. The 15th was auctioned on eBay. The winning bid of $13,000 was made by an Alabama hunter.

All proceeds go to the TWRA’s ongoing elk-restoration program.

The hunt not only helps finance the restoration project, but also serves as a symbol of the success of efforts to restore lost or threatened species in Tennessee. The TWRA's objective was to establish a viable elk herd that could sustain managed hunting and make it a renewable resource, just as is the case with deer and turkeys.

In addition to the annual fall hunt, elk viewing and photography have become popular year-round attractions on the Wildlife Management Area located north of Knoxville, with significant economic returns.

Elk are native to Tennessee -- early frontiersmen wrote about encountering vast, grazing herds -- but their numbers rapidly declined due to unregulated hunting and loss of habitat. The state's last known wild elk was killed in Obion County in 1865.

Now, more than a century later, the shrill, goose-bump bugle of elks – literally the call of the wild – once again trumpets through Tennessee's forests and grasslands.

Tennessee’s majestic elk are back, thanks to the vision and dedication of TWRA officials and the hunters and other conservationists who finance the effort.

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