Welcome to BOWHUNTING’s 2010 Big-Game Issue. In the pages that follow, you’ll discover articles on some of North America’s most majestic game animals and idyllic hunting destinations. Whether it’s behemoth black bears in Pennsylvania, cagey Coues deer in Arizona, bugling bull elk in the Rockies, menacing mountain lions in Nevada or burly blacktail bucks on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, this is truly an issue to spark some dreams and fuel your passion for the hunt.
Speaking of hunting dreams, one of mine came true May 5 when I was one of 800 people selected to participate in Kentucky’s 2010 elk hunt. I drew an antlerless tag, and while at first glance that may not seem like a big deal, this is truly a trophy cow hunt.
You see, the odds of being selected for any Kentucky elk license fall somewhere between slim and none; and I did it on the first try! Nearly 45,500 hunters paid $10 to enter this year’s elk lottery, which included 125 bull tags, 75 spike bull tags and 600 antlerless tags. That means the overall chance of being selected was roughly 1.8 percent. But since a maximum of 10 percent of the tags can be awarded to non-residents like me, my selection is even more amazing.
What’s also amazing is the fact there are elk to hunt in the Bluegrass State. Eastern elk were common in Kentucky back in the days of Daniel Boone, but by the mid-1800s they had been extirpated amid a flood of European settlement and habitat destruction. It wasn’t until 1997 — after a 150-year absence — that elk returned to Kentucky thanks to a reintroduction effort coordinated by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. From 1997-2002, more than 1,500 Rocky Mountain elk were released at eight sites throughout a 16-county elk restoration zone in Eastern Kentucky. And in just eight years, the population has grown to an incredible 10,000 strong, easily making it the largest free-roaming elk herd east of the Rockies.
High-quality habitat is the biggest reason elk are thriving. The restoration zone contains vast expanses of reclaimed coal mining land that have been turned into high-elevation grassland very similar to traditional western elk range you would see in places such as Yellowstone National Park. Kentucky also has mild winters and no wolves or mountain lions to prey on the elk. As a result, the RMEF says Kentucky elk have a 90 percent breeding success rate, 92 percent calf survival rate and, on average, weigh 15 percent more than their western counterparts.
By all accounts, Kentucky’s elk program is one of the most successful wildlife restoration efforts ever undertaken in North America, and my elk-hunting experience there will be a celebration of yet another jewel in sportsmen’s conservation crown. This year’s hunt lottery alone raised $455,000 for wildlife programs.
Kentucky held its first modern-day elk hunt in 2001, when only a dozen permits were issued. By 2009, the elk license allocation had grown to 1,000 and was reduced to 800 this year. Many elk-hunting experts believe the next world-record bull will hail from the Bluegrass State.
Would I trade my antlerless tag for a bull tag? Sure. But considering the circumstances, a Kentucky cow elk would still be a once-in-a-lifetime trophy.