When most hunters think of elk hunting, they envision snow-capped mountain peaks with dark fir forests, alpine meadows gracing the high country, and golden aspens shimmering in the foothills. But there’s another option that’s steadily becoming available. Picture sprawling meadows of rugged, reclaimed coal mine land in Kentucky. A forest glade in Wisconsin’s northwoods. A hillside in Arkansas’ Ozarks. And an Appalachian ridge cutting through the Pennsylvania countryside.
Elk once ranged across our nation. But habitat changes and overhunting led to a severe decline in populations. In the last few decades elk are making a comeback in the East, thanks to the efforts of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), state fish and game agencies, and a variety of other conservation partners.
The Eastern Elk Restoration
RMEF has been at the forefront of eastern elk restoration and they’ve worked with state and local wildlife agencies to put elk back on the landscape. There’s still much work to be done, but several states already have high enough elk numbers to warrant a hunting season.
“It’s been part of RMEF’s mission since 1990 when the first project east of the Mississippi was completed in Wisconsin,” says Blake Henning, chief conservation officer for RMEF. “Since then, the organization has spent millions of dollars both directly and indirectly to support the efforts of seven states (Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin) and also Ontario, Canada.”
Henning said RMEF is deeply invested in restoring wild elk herds to their former ranges, which means they must engage and educate thousands of people to help them understand the importance of conservation and hunting to the future of elk, other wildlife, and their habitat.
“Through RMEF’s Eastern Elk Initiative, past elk restoration efforts have helped ensure a future where the residents and visitors to states east of ‘classic’ elk range have an opportunity to view and eventually hunt elk,” says Henning. “Following the success of the restoration program, RMEF is helping ensure healthy elk herds continue to thrive through land protection, access, and habitat enhancement projects.”
RMEF has been able to support all eastern elk states in their efforts to restore and support healthy populations of elk, according to Henning. Many states have worked hard to help elk populations flourish to a level that now allows for hunting opportunities (most recently, Wisconsin and Missouri).
“Kentucky did elk restoration in a big way in the late 1990s by moving 1,500 elk into the state,” says Henning. “RMEF played an integral role in that process. Twenty years later, the state has a herd of 11,000 elk and that herd also became the source herd that spawned the restoration movement in Missouri, Virginia, West Virginia and a supplemental restoration in Wisconsin.”
RMEF can’t restore elk populations on its own. They must have strong partnerships with state wildlife agencies. These are the folks who get the real work done on the ground. They manage populations, improve habitat, conduct research, and work to educate the public. State agency staffers should be commended, because without them there would be no eastern elk hunting seasons.
“RMEF works closely with state and federal agencies, landowners, local governments, volunteers, and many organizations to deliver our mission,” says Henning. “Funding is often leveraged across partners to maximize investment across elk country. RMEF and partner roles shift from one project to the next, depending on the type of project or opportunity.”
There are nine states east of the Mississippi River, or bordering it, that have elk. Each state has restored elk numbers to the point where limited hunting is allowed. The tags are tough to draw and you must be a resident in most states to apply, though you can expect that to change as herds grow in size.
Three Lessons Learned After Decades of Elk Restoration
Ask any state that has it: Reintroducing elk is not easy. Many factors must come together. But Henning names three keys.
“Number one, you have to have a supportive state wildlife agency and public, including hunters,” he says. “Both the agency and the hunters need to be willing to advocate for the reintroduction.”
“Secondly, and now with CWD on the landscape, you need a CWD-free source herd,” Henning adds. “And you have to be willing and able to move a good number of elk — maybe 75 to 100 — in order to put enough animals on the ground to allow the herd to build.”
“Additionally,” he says, “you need a large intact landscape with good habitat. Kentucky has this, and so does West Virginia.”
In fact, after Kentucky and Pennsylvania, Henning thinks West Virginia may well be the next “big thing” for eastern elk. Why?
“There’s key leadership in the state, as well as interested hunters and RMEF members that are very supportive,” he says. “The state wants to bring more elk in. They have also been aggressive in buying or leasing big blocks of land that can be home to the elk, particularly in the southern coal fields and reclaimed coal mines.”
CWD Adds Challenge
“The spread of CWD has nearly stopped restoration activities now,” says Henning. “States will only allow elk to be brought into their state if the source herd and state are CWD-free. Twenty-five states have confirmed CWD. Moving cervids around at all, even within states, is not looked upon favorably, pretty much all across the United States. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) has put forth a document suggesting that cervids (elk, deer, moose) not be moved across state lines.”
“Disease testing protocols at the state and federal level are challenging in general,” Henning adds. “Given the long quarantine times within the source state and also in the receiving state, it can be very hard on the animals. The benefits of moving animals has to be thought out carefully.”
The 9 Eastern Elk States
Here are the stories of nine states east of the Mississippi River, or bordering it, that have elk. Each state has restored enough elk to host an annual hunt—or at least may host a hunt soon. 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
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.
Herd Size: 1,350
Tags Awarded: 164
Season: An early archery season runs in mid-September, a general firearms season lasts for six days in early November, and a late-season antlerless hunt runs for eight days in early January.
Draw: Pennsylvania is a resident-only lottery. For residents who draw, the license itself costs a whopping $11.90. Drawing takes place August 15 each year, after a summer application period.
Harvest: In the 2019 season, 127 elk were killed in Pennsylvania, and that included some absolute whopper bulls, including several 700-plus pounders. Ten of 62 cows weighed over 500 pounds. Bull hunters went 27 for 27.
Elk in Kentucky
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.
Herd Size: 11,000
Tags Awarded: 594
Season: Archery and crossbow season takes place for two weeks in September. Four firearm hunts (two for bull, two for cows) occur over five-day periods in September, October, and November.
Draw: Kentucky allows nonresidents to apply for elk tags (up to 10 percent of the permits). Application period opens January 1, each year and closes April 30.
Harvest: Kentucky sees a robust annual elk harvest. In 2019, 242 elk were killed; in 2018, 368 elk; in 2017, 335 elk.
Read Next: Don’t Blow Your Elk Hunt
Elk in Michigan
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.
Herd Size: 1,200
Tags Awarded: 260
Season: Hunt period 1 consists of three four-day segments in September and early October. Hunt period 2 is nine days in mid-December. Over 250 total licenses are usually drawn, about two-thirds for any elk (can shoot a bull) and two-thirds for antlerless animals only.
Draw: Michigan is for residents-only, and elk hunt permits are drawn in early July each year. A weighted preference point system grows applicants’ chances as they go.
Harvest: Michigan hunters usually kill about 200 animals per year.
For more information go to Michigan DNR.
Elk in Tennessee
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.
Herd Size: 450
Tags Awarded: 15
Season: Tennessee holds an archery hunt (seven days) beginning the last Saturday in September, an any-method hunt (rifle, muzzleloader, or archery) beginning the second Saturday in October. Hunters in certain areas outside of the core elk zone may tale an elk during an open deer season.
Draw: Only residents can apply for a Tennessee elk hunt, with an application period running from mid-June to mid-July annually.
Harvest: About a dozen elk are shot each year in Tennessee.
For more information go to the TWRA elk page.
Elk in Wisconsin
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.
Herd Size: 400
Tags Awarded: 10 (5 public, 5 tribal)
Season: Wisconsin’s first modern elk hunt took place in 2018. There are two seasons: about a month from mid-October to mid-November, and then for nine days in the middle of December. Only bulls in the Clam Lake herd are legal. Over 70 percent of the Clam Lake elk range is public land, so finding a place to hunt is not a problem. Open counties include Ashland, Bayfield, Price, Rusk, and Sawyer.
Draw: Elk hunt applications are accepted from March 1 through May 31. Only Wisconsin residents may apply.
Harvest: In 2019, 10 bulls were harvested (10 licenses were issued; five went to state hunters and five to Ojibwe tribe members).
For more information go to the Wisconsin DNR elk page.
Elk in Minnesota
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 translocated 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.
Season: Staggered either-sex seasons (bulls or cows are fair game) and antlerless-only seasons run for nine-day periods from late August through early December. There are also a few special bull-only licenses annually. Hunting currently only takes place in Kittson County, as re-building takes place in the Grygla herd. Ample public lands are available, but elk are hard on crops and hunting permission may be attainable on private lands. Many of the bulls taken in Minnesota are truly eye-popping in both antler size and body weight.
Draw: Elk hunting in Minnesota is a once-in-lifetime affair for those lucky enough to draw. Although applications were up this year, about 2,000 applicants for 40 to 50 licenses is the norm. Hunters can apply individually or in parties of two (still only a one-elk limit). Applications are accepted starting in mid-May, with the drawing in late June.
Herd Size: 250
Tags Awarded: 44
Harvest: In 2019, 15 elk were taken. In 2018, it was 17 elk.
For more information go to the Minnesota DNR elk page.
Elk in Virginia
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 translocated 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 translocate 71 more of the Bluegrass State’s elk into reclaimed mining lands in Virginia’s Buchanan County. Virginia has about 250 elk these days.
Herd Size: 250
Hunting Season: The main elk herd in Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise Counties cannot yet sustain a hunt, but outside of those counties, elk are fair game during any open deer season.
For more information go to the Virginia DWR elk page.
Elk in Missouri
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.
Herd Size: 200
Tags Awarded: 5
Season: Fall 2020 kicks off Missouri’s first elk season. The season runs for nine days in mid-October (archery), and nine days in mid-December (firearms). Only antlered elk are legal. The open zone spans Carter, Reynolds, and Shannon Counties.
Draw: Only residents may apply. The application period is May 1 to 31. Currently, only five tags are awarded.
For more information go to the MDC elk page.
Elk in Arkansas
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 (https://www.agfc.com/en/zone-map/701/), Bearcat Hollow WMA (https://www.agfc.com/en/zone-map/655/), 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.
Herd Size: 450
Tags Awarded: 26 public land tags
Season: There are both public-land-only and private-land-only licenses, with two two-day youth hunts and two five-day regular hunts (in October) for public and private lands. Bows, muzzleloaders. or rifles (.24 caliber or larger) may be used. Elk licenses are good only in the Core Elk Management Zone. During open deer seasons outside of the Core Elk Zone, hunters can legally take any elk.
Draw: Only Arkansas residents may apply for the public land permits. The application period opens May 1 and ends June 1.
Harvest Report: Elk harvest hovers at about 40 to 50 animals per year in Arkansas (combines public land tags, private land tags and elk shot out of the core zone)
For more information go to the AGFC elk page.