“Bring back the bulls!”
Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it, even if the refrain should also include cows and calves. Elk restoration has been a growth industry in recent years, as wapiti have returned to Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Arkansas, Virginia, and just in the past month, to Missouri.
There are dozens of good reasons to get behind efforts to restore elk to landscapes they haven’t occupied in over a century. Here are the best:
1. Additional Hunting Opportunities
Lately, we hunters have been losing more than we’ve been gaining. We’ve lost habitat and places to hunt. We’ve lost animals to disease and game-changing weather. We’ve even lost fellow hunters to distractions as insidious as digital gaming and as troubling as the necessity of getting a second job. In every state where they have been restored, elk populations will be controlled with managed public hunting. Yes, the odds will be slim in early years of the hunting permit lotteries, but as herds grow, so should our opportunities to hunt elk.
September’s song is about to change in southern Missouri just as it has in the coal country of eastern Kentucky. “We can’t hardly get any sleep on some of those warm September nights,” says my friend Sam Mars, who lives just over Cumberland Gap from the Bluegrass State’s bulls. “And you know what? I don’t mind it a bit.”
3. Remarkable Trophy Potential
Think a 150-class whitetail is immense? Wait ‘til you see a 380-inch bull elk. Elk antlers can grow big in every way: mass, tine length, width, but the overall impression of seeing a big mature bull will take your breath away. The adjectives that come to mind are all clichéd—majestic, royal, epic—but damned if I can come up with better ones. And maybe because they’re occupying a vacant niche, reintroduced elk tend toward trophies. In Pennsylvania last year, hunters killed a collection of record-book bulls, including a 480-inch 9x7 and a 384-inch 8x9. Those are not just big for the Keystone State. They’re big anywhere.
4. They Belong
Elk aren’t some exotic strangers. They grew up with the landscapes where they’re being relocated. It’s nice to have them back, in some cases after a two-century absence.
5. Better Than Powerball
You won’t win $1 million applying for an elk tag, but to some hunters, pulling a bull license is even better. And the odds of drawing the most coveted tags are just about as long as Powerball, so you’d better opt for the lottery that at least pays in loins and roasts and inches of antler.
6. Economic Benefit
We hunters can get behind elk restorations, but we’re hardly alone. One Pennsylvania study suggests that $18.6 million is spent annually by visitors to elk country. That is revenue spent by people who are coming to view—not to hunt—elk. Nationwide, the average wildlife-viewing tourist spends about $139 per day.
7. Habitat Benefit
Here’s one you might not expect, but elk can actually benefit the overall landscape. While whitetails tend to forage on new growth and agricultural crops, elk are often more diligent grazers, chowing down on decadent old growth in mixed woodland habitats. Their grazing patterns encourage fresh growth that’s palatable to a wide range of other species.
8. Friends of Elk
When elk come to town, so does a huge support system, and not all—or even most—of it from your state game agency. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is committed to improving elk habitat no matter where it is, and that’s no small ally. The RMEF is on a tear lately, with somewhere north of 175,000 members in 500 chapters around the nation. The conservation organization has conserved nearly 6 million acres of habitat, and they’re actively working to bring back elk to even more of America’s landscape.
9. Immense Sheds
Remember how you showed that 90-inch whitetail shed to all your friends? Wait ‘til you find the matching set of 7x7 elk sheds.
10. Visible Herds
You might have nyala or leopards in your county, but how would you ever know? One thing about elk is that, at least in certain seasons, they’re pretty visible, and you can learn to look for them. And if the sight of a couple dozen cows gathered around a rip-snorting, fire-breathing, red-eyed herd bull doesn’t get your blood moving, you’d better take up shuffleboard.
11. Four-Foot-Long Backstraps
Photo: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation