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The Nine Eastern Elk States

The nine states east of the Mississippi River, or bordering it, that have elk.

Each state has restored enough elk to host an annual hunt. Put in for a draw and see if you’re lucky enough to hunt elk where the animals once roamed and now bugle again.

Elk in Pennsylvania PGC Wildlife or Hunt Wild PA

Elk held on surprisingly long in rugged Pennsylvania against the landscape changes of pioneering and the pressure of both subsistence and market hunters. The last native elk was reported in the 1870s. By the early 1900s, efforts were beginning to reintroduce elk back to the state, with a shipment of 50 elk from Yellowstone at a cost of $30 each. In 1916, 95 more came.

It is amazing that these western elk, where stuffed into train cattle cars and then dumped off into the central Pennsylvania countryside, and began to prosper. But farmers resented the big animals’ negative impacts on crops. In 1923 hunting was allowed. But by 1930, it was over: The elk herd was too small.

By 1970, the few elk that remained started to expand their range, and by 1981 the herd seemed to be approaching huntable numbers again. In the early 1990s, RMEF efforts helped the Pennsylvania Game Commission establish State Game Lands and other habitat-rich areas to help the herd and to keep it off croplands. By 2000, some animals had to be trapped and transferred. In 2001 a lottery awarded 30 hunters licenses, 26 elk were shot, and Pennsylvania’s modern season was born.

Elk in Kentucky The Elk Decade or KDFW

Elk once roamed across much of the U.S. and Canada. Hal Korber/Hunt Wild PA If you had to crown a king of the eastern elk states, Kentucky’s it. The Bluegrass State has done an outstanding job reclaiming scars on the land from coal mining and turning those acres into elk havens.

Historical records estimate the last native eastern elk in Kentucky was shot in 1847. Thanks to the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission and RMEF, a relocation program began in 1997. More than 1,500 elk from Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona followed over the next few years. Key to Kentucky’s success was putting the new elk in the rugged eastern side of the state where the animals would not have farmers’ crops to raid. Kentucky held its first modern elk hunt in 2001.

Elk in Michigan Michigan DNR.

Michigan’s last native elk disappeared around 1875. The first restoration effort took place in 1918, when seven animals from the West were brought in and released near a town called Wolverine. That initial stocking steadily grew, and by the late 1960s Michigan was home to over 1,500 elk. It was time for an elk hunt.

But poachers also thought it was their time, and coupled with some hard winters, the herd was down to about 200 elk in 1975. Habitat improvements and pressure on poachers grew the herd back to about 850 animals by 1984, when elk hunting resumed. The herd has grown from there.

Elk in Tennessee TWRA elk page.

The last native eastern elk in Tennessee was killed in Obion County in 1865. With a swath of suitable habitat beckoning and other states having elk restoration success, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and RMEF got busy and began restorations with elk from Alberta.

Releases of over 200 total elk occurred from 2001 through 2008 in the 670,000-acre elk restoration zone in Scott, Morgan, Anderson, Campbell, and Claiborne counties. Tennessee works to keep the elk in this zone to avoid the animals pioneering farmland and raiding crops. After 140 years without elk hunting, a quota draw was held in 2009 and Tennessee had its first modern hunting season.

Elk in Wisconsin Wisconsin DNR elk page

In pre-settlement times, elk roamed much of the state, including the prairies and savannas of Wisconsin’s southern and western reaches. By the 1880s, habitat loss and overhunting had eliminated all the elk. It wasn’t until 1995 that bugles again resonated in the Badger State, when 25 elk were captured in Michigan and reintroduced into the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest near Clam Lake in northwestern Wisconsin.

Other introductions (including elk from Kentucky most recently) ensued, new calves helped the herd, and as of December 2019 the Clam Lake herd was approaching 300 elk. In 2015 and 2016, 73 elk from Kentucky were released in central Wisconsin’s Black River State Forest to try and begin a herd there as well. After an initial drop in numbers (to be expected), the Black River herd was up to 79 animals before the 2020 calving season.

Elk in Minnesota Minnesota DNR elk page

Elk were abundant on the prairies and brushlands of pre-settlement Minnesota. But the habitat loss and subsistence-hunting made the last native elk disappear by around 1900. Early attempts at re-stocking elk didn’t work, but by 1935 a small herd trans located from Itasca State Park (headwaters of the Mississippi River) seemed to hold its own near the small town of Grygla.

In the early 1980s, though, an unexpected gift arrived in northwestern Minnesota from adjoining Manitoba: Canadian elk began summering in Kittson and Roseau Counties, then decided to make a go of it full-time south of the border. These animals form the core of Minnesota’s current huntable herd.

Elk in Virginia Virginia DWR elk page

Virginia’s last known native elk was killed in 1855. In 1916, the fledgling Virginia Game Commission released elk in 12 counties, but the stocking didn’t work. The habitat just wasn’t right, and by 1970 the few elk that did survive were done.

Then serendipity happened. As Kentucky trans located over 1,500 elk into that state between 1997 and 2002, that successful herd began spilling over into Virginia. Interest in elk grew exponentially, and between 2012 and 2014, The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) worked with Kentucky to trans locate 71 more of the Bluegrass State’s elk into reclaimed mining lands in Virginia’s Buchanan County. Virginia has about 250 elk these days.

Elk in Missouri MDC elk page

Missouri has only recently brought elk back with the first restoration starting in 2011 when the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) brought 34 elk from Kentucky to the Peck Ranch Conservation Area. Subsequent stockings in 2012 and 2013 brought the total to 100 animals, and reproduction has since grown the herd to about 170 animals.

Good places to observe the expanding Missouri elk herd include the original Fort Peck Ranch area, the Current River Conservation Area, and recreation areas on the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.

Elk in Arkansas AGFC elk page

Arkansas may seem too far south for elk, but the state had them up until the 1840s. Some animals came back in 1933 when the U.S. Forest Service tried to bring elk in from Oklahoma. That stocking didn’t take, but a reintroduction of 112 elk from Colorado and Nebraska to the Ozark Mountains from 1981 to 1985 was successful.

Today that herd numbers about 450 animals and ranges across 315,000 acres, 85,000 of which are public. Those public acres include National Park Service land (Buffalo National River), National Forest acreage, and the following Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s (AGFC) Lands where work with RMEF continues to enhance habitat: Gene Rush WMA, Bearcat Hollow WMA, and the Sonny Varnell Richland Valley Elk Conservation Area, which was added to Gene Rush in 2007.

Modern elk hunts in Arkansas started in 1998. Arkansas’ Core Elk Management Zone includes Boone, Carroll, Madison, Newton and Searcy Counties.

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