OUTDOORS

Wildlife benefit from commitment of local group

3/25/2014
BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

The closest elk is likely 300 miles away from Toledo, but there was a large gathering of people at the Angola Gardens banquet hall Saturday night with the expressed intention of improving life on this continent for this large North American mammal.

Kentucky’s elk population has grown since 1997, amassing nearly 14,000. It’s the largest herd east of the Mississippi River.
Kentucky’s elk population has grown since 1997, amassing nearly 14,000. It’s the largest herd east of the Mississippi River.

The occasion was the annual fund-raising banquet of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s northwest Ohio chapter. The focus was not limited to this area, or to the animal Native Americans called wapiti, meaning light-colored deer.

The evening, and the organization, were focused on the big picture.

“This is a wildlife habitat organization,” said Jim Maples, who helped found the local chapter two decades ago. “We not only help elk, we help all wildlife. When you preserve and restore habitat, all wildlife benefits.”

So with the dinner, and the series of auctions and raffles that were part of the evening, another $11,000 or so will go toward that effort. Since 1984, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has channeled its funds into protecting and enhancing more than 6.4 million acres of wildlife habitat.

“I’m proud of the fact that most of our money goes right back into the ground, into conservation and habitat,” said Maples, a native of Alabama who came to northwest Ohio 27 years ago to work for an aviation training company. “Very little goes to administrative fees, because our commitment is to habitat, so everything is centered on that work.”

Ohio has nine RMEF chapters, with more than 3,000 members who have helped raise close to $2.4 million for habitat projects across the country. Michigan has 17 chapters, with more than 5,000 members who have raised nearly $5.6 million for the organization’s conservation efforts, and assisted in direct conservation projects on more than 4,000 acres of elk habitat in the state.

Michigan’s elk herd is thriving in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, in and around the Pigeon River County State Forest. RMEF has carried out seven projects in the area to preserve elk habitat.

“Elk and elk habitat are not the only winners,” said RMEF lands and conservation head Blake Henning. “Deer, bear, turkey, grouse, and other wildlife are also found on the property, which is also a popular area for those who hunt and enjoy other recreational activities.”

Elk were once spread across most of North America, including Ohio and Michigan, but they were the victims of uncontrolled hunting and habitat loss in many areas. The herds that survived were found only in remote, wilderness-type sites in the western United States. Restoration programs, with the funding and backing of RMEF, have helped restore elk populations in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

Wild elk were gone from Ohio by the middle of the 19th century, and no formal efforts have taken place to return them to the state, because of a lack of suitable habitat and range. There are several commercial elk ranch operations in Ohio that sell the meat to restaurants, or provide fee-based hunting options.

Pennsylvania’s elk are believed to have been wiped out by the late 1800s, but the state game commission brought in elk from the American west early in the 20th century to begin re-establishing a herd, which thrives today in the north-central part of the state. Both Pennsylvania and Michigan hold limited elk hunts each year to keep the populations in check. West Virginia also has a small population of elk, located in the seven-county Southern Coal Fields Region in the southwest corner of the state.

The star of the elk reintroduction effort is Kentucky, where a 1997 effort by the state and RMEF has resulted in the largest herd east of the Mississippi. The animals have thrived in reclaimed strip mine areas in a 16-county elk restoration zone in the southeast corner of the state, so a plan to stock 200 animals per year was halted in 2002. The Kentucky herd has grown to approximately 14,000 animals.

“It is amazing how they’ve done,” Maples said. “It shows what you can do when one of these restoration projects is done right, with a lot of support from folks like the members of our chapter here.”

Looking to the future of the organization and its conservation work, Maples said he is encouraged by the number of younger people interested in habitat restoration efforts, such as RMEF.

“When you see a lot of kids getting involved along with their parents, and they are definitely active in the outdoors, it means the future is in good hands,” he said.

“I know people get hit a million ways from a thousand different organizations asking for help, so we really appreciate the support Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation gets in the Toledo area. We had an excellent turnout for this event, but we’ve always had really good people involved.”

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.