STONEY FORK, Ky. — Bringing the majestic elk back to the Appalachian hills and hollows where they once roamed has become a nightmare.
Rogues from a herd that numbers in the thousands are trampling gardens, flattening fences and marring yards with manure in the southeastern Kentucky town of Stoney Fork. They have made the roads dangerous, causing dozens of car crashes.
Some residents have had enough. With the state’s OK, they headed out into the woods to kill elk. They killed 13 of them.
“They’re dangerous. Somebody’s going to get killed if they don’t do something,” said Stoney Fork resident Nelson Short, a 73-year-old resident with a flowing white beard that gleams like Santa’s.
Short joined about 35 neighbors in a hunt one recent day. With a black 7mm Ruger slung across his shoulder, he boasted that one he caught trespassing on his land wound up in his freezer, sliced into steaks.
“When they started bringing them in here, I thought it would be a good thing,” Short said. “It wasn’t.”
Elk had disappeared from Kentucky around the time of the Civil War, mainly because of overhunting.
Wildlife managers began bringing elk into the state in 1997 from several western states in what was heralded as an important ecology and tourism program. A group of about 1,500 elk released into 14 counties has grown to more than 10,000.
Officials expected the elk would thrive on the man-made meadows left behind after coal companies removed towering ridgetops in a controversial mining method known as mountaintop removal. Some of the elk, however, preferred the tender sprouts growing in the yards couched between steep mountains along a state road that passes through Stoney Fork.
The state has received hundreds of complaints about elk intruding on neighborhoods. And they have become a threat on the roads.
More than 100 elk have been killed in collisions with vehicles since 2005, and no human deaths, according to state wildlife records obtained by The Associated Press. Because that only includes crashes reported to wildlife officials, residents say the total could be ten times that.
“I feel like they don’t need to be here,” said Melissa Jones, who has earned celebrity status in Stoney Fork because she survived a specatular crash which left an angry bull elk thrashing and kicking in the front seat of her Geo Metro.
“They’re a danger to us, and we want them gone,” she said.
Jones counts it a miracle that she walked away with only cuts and bruises after slamming into the cow-sized animal on her way to Bible study two years ago. The animals, which can weigh 700 pounds and stand 5 feet tall, can inflict major damage on vehicles.
Responding to complaints from Stoney Fork residents, state wildlife officials agreed to allow them to shoot elk on their property in January and February, when mountain snows push elk into residential areas in search of food.
Lawmakers are considering barring wildlife officials from moving elk into towns without getting locals’ OK.
To get the permits, however, residents first had to prove they had suffered property damage during visits from conservation officers. They had to follow existing hunting safety rules that keep them from shooting too close to roads or houses.
The state is also helping to thin the herds. Kentucky Wildlife Director Karen Waldrop said her officers are capturing elk and moving them to places that haven’t had the problems Stoney Fork has experienced.
Waldrop said allowing residents to shoot some elk in residential areas will cause others to flee back to the mountaintops where biologists and conservation officers have set traps.
So far, they’ve captured nearly 50 that will be sent to Missouri, which is starting its own reintroduction program. Virginia is also considering a plan to bring some of the Kentucky elk there to start a herd. West Virginia has drafted an elk management plan for the southern part of the state.
Waldrop said most communities have embraced the elk, though most haven’t had the problems that Stoney Fork has.
“Most people enjoy the elk,” she said. “They like the idea of having elk near them, and they like the positive economic benefits” from tourism.
The day when the elk will no longer be a menace in Stoney Fork cannot come soon enough for some residents.
Last month, Lou Brock plowed into two elk in his Toyota Tacoma, doing $9,000 worth of damage. “They are ignorant animals,” Brock said. “If they see headlights, they run toward them. They’re stupid.”