Elk once flourished across North America. The majestic animals adapted to a wide range of environments, and at their most prolific, an estimated 10 million elk roamed nearly every region of the country. However, development and industrial growth across the nation has slowly challenged the long term viability of the animal. In fact, it is believed that the last Kentucky elk was killed before the Civil War.
In the heart of Kentucky’s elk restoration zone, 12,000-acres of land nestled in Bell County is currently being developed into a tourist destination called Boone’s Ridge. When it opens in 2022, Boone’s Ridge will house a visitor center complete with a regional history museum, theater, restaurant, and wildlife viewing including elk, bobcats, and black bears. Boone’s Ridge describes elk as a “tourism super-magnet,” and the animals are expected to be one of the destination’s largest crowd draws.
With an average household income of less than $25,000 and a 38 percent poverty rate, Bell County is one of the poorest counties in the U.S. But locals are hoping Boone’s Ridge will help bring new economic life to the area. Boone’s Ridge confirms that the project will create 210 on-site jobs, offering “an average full-time wage and benefits package at $54,263.” Estimates by two independent consultants indicate that Boone’s Ridge could attract more than 1 million annual visitors and add over $150 million annually to the regional economy, according to The New York Times.
Supporters of Kentucky’s elk population restoration viewed the prospect as a way to increase biodiversity and open new channels of economic development and recreation. One of the key elements of elk’s reintroduction was the hunting opportunities it would offer. In fact, in 1997, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation–a hunting association–offered, “to fund a multimillion-dollar six-year plan to airlift more than 1,500 elk to Kentucky from the western United States,” according to The New York Times.
The long-term sustainability benefits associated with reintroducing elk in the area may be unknown, but what is known, is that Kelley Stewart–a University of Nevada scientist–and her team found that a well-managed elk population can increase plant productivity and diversity, and promote ecosystem functioning. Reintroduction has also produced clear economic benefits. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources reports that elk hunting and recreation-related expenditures generate around $5 million to local economies. Elk’s reemergence marks a new era and potential for eastern Kentucky tourism–a future where people from across the country travel to witness elk and their captivating beauty.