Tennessee’s last wild elk was killed in 1865 in Obion County.
The last one, that is, until 2009 when the first elk was tagged in the state’s inaugural hunt on an East Tennessee Wildlife Management Area.
That hunt signaled the successful restoration of the indigenous animals.
Since then, thanks to a visionary elk-stocking program launched some two decades ago by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and partners, 60 more hunters – including two locals -- have harvested elk.
For this month’s 12th annual hunts – gun, archery and youth – a total of 15 tags were issued.
The increased number of tags reflects the expanding size of the elk population and the program’s success. The animals are managed by wildlife biologists, who determine how many can be harvested. Only bulls can be taken.
The elk roam wild on the vast North Cumberland WMA, located north of Knoxville, and hunters say the hunts are extremely challenging.
“I’ve hunted elk out West, and the Tennessee hunt was probably tougher than any of them,” said Lebanon’s Mike Graves, after tagging a massive bull in 2013. “The terrain is rugged, and my guide and I had to work hard to get a shot.”
Hartsville’s Clay Oldham, who collected an elk during the 2014 hunt, agreed.
“The elk roam wild over a big area, and locating a bull and stalking it is a challenge,” he said. “It requires some serious hunting.”
Making sure the hunts are fair-chase is the Agency’s goal. Although in some areas herds can be viewed and photographed by wildlife-watchers, the elk that are hunted roam in vast, untamed areas.
Elk were abundant when settlers arrived in Middle Tennessee in the late 1700’s, but the herds quickly dwindled due to over-hunting and loss of habitat. After more than a century’s absence, the TWRA launched an elk-stocking program patterned after its successful deer and turkey restorations.
Deer and turkeys at one time had disappeared from most parts of the state, but were brought back in abundance. That was the Agency’s goal for elk when it began importing animals from Canada for stocking in the late 1990’s.
Despite some early setbacks by predation and poaching, the imported elk thrived and multiplied in their once-native habitat. Today the herds are robust and sustainable, as exemplified by the expanded hunting opportunities.
The hunts provide an economic stimulus to the remote East Tennessee area, as well as an opportunity for the state’s hunters to pursue a majestic big-game animal. They represent another success story for the TWRA – the restoration of a native species once given up for lost.
The shill bugle of a bull elk echoing through forests and valleys is spine-tingling. Our pioneer ancestors heard it when they first ventured into the wilderness over two centuries ago.
Today we can hear it too.