STONEY FORK, Ky. — Marauding elk had been trampling gardens, grazing on lawns and causing car crashes on the twisting country road that winds its way through Stoney Fork.
Folks here got fed up and, with the approval of wildlife officials, started shooting the cow-sized animals that have multiplied by the thousands throughout Kentucky’s mountain region over the past 15 years.
Now, wildlife officials will consider a cease fire.
It’s a move that residents oppose, for fear that the elk will move back into their neighborhoods.
“We had a problem, and the fix is working,” said Judge-Executive Albey Brock, the top elected official in Bell County. “I hope they wouldn’t suspend something that’s working, because, on my end, it’s a public safety issue.”
Brock said no elk have been struck by vehicles in recent months, which he sees as proof that allowing local residents to shoot them has made the community safer.
“When you’re doing something that’s working, why would you change that?” Brock asked.
Elk had disappeared from Kentucky around the time of the Civil War, mainly because of overhunting. Wildlife managers began reintroducing them 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 the mountains has now grown to more than 10,000.
The elk are thriving on the man-made meadows left behind where mining companies have scraped off mountaintops in search of coal.
In Stoney Fork, however, the elk had been coming off the mountains in the winter to munch on manicured lawns, leaving deep hoof prints in yards, rubbing their antlers on ornamental shrubs, and making unwelcomed deposits on sidewalks.
It’s the danger they pose to motorists that has residents fearful. Records from the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources show that more than 100 elk have been killed in collisions with vehicles since 2005.
Pickup trucks have been flipped upside down in collisions. In one instance, a bull elk crashed through a windshield and ended up in the front seat of a Geo Metro. The driver, Melissa Jones, escaped with only cuts and bruises. She now is one of the people calling for the animals’ removal from the community.
Nearly three years ago, angry residents demanded that wildlife officials do something to alleviate the problem. The Kentucky Wildlife Commission approved a pilot project under which property owners could shoot the elk during a special mid-winter season when snow pushes them into residential areas in search of food.
They’ve killed 23 of the animals so far. That number could climb between Jan. 26 and Feb. 8 when residents will again be allowed to load their guns and take aim for what could be the final time. The pilot project is set to expire on the closing day of the season. Wildlife commissioners will then review the results and determine whether to allow local residents to continue shooting.
Those residents met with Kentucky Wildlife Director Karen Waldrop and others in early December to urge continuation of the project. Commissioners said they’ll await the findings before making a decision.
In addition to local residents shooting elk, conservation officers have been trapping the animals on mountains around Stoney Fork and taking them elsewhere.
So far, they hauled about 130 of the animals away. Waldrop said some were taken about 100 miles to the mountains around Fish Trap Lake in Pike County and released. Others, she said, were transported to Missouri and Virginia, which are starting their own elk herds.
In what seemed unlikely trades of elk for fish, Kentucky gave the animals to Missouri in exchange for crappie and to Virginia in exchange for trout.
In Stoney Fork, the war on elk has been with restrictions. Residents have been required to get permits to shoot only one elk each year, a female.
The idea was that allowing residents to shoot some elk in their neighborhoods would cause others to flee back to the mountaintops where biologists and conservation officers had their traps set.
“I’d say what they’ve done has already saved somebody’s life,” said David Gambrel, one of the more than 100 people who have crashed vehicles into the animals along a 10-mile stretch of Kentucky 221 in Bell County. “It has improved a lot. But there’s still too many of them. We don’t have enough room for them all.”
Alberta Lambert, a 58-year-old retired coal miner, is among residents who don’t want state wildlife officials to stop allowing them to shoot elk. In fact, Lambert wants more elk shot, particularly the big bull elk that make driving especially dangerous.
“You can go around a curve and they’ll be standing right in the middle of the road,” she said. “The problem isn’t solved. It’s far from solved.”
Waldrop told Stoney Fork residents that even troublesome bull elk can be targeted under certain circumstances.
“If you have an elk in the act of causing damage on your property, you have the right shoot that elk,” she said. “But it has to be in the act of causing damage.”
Stoney Fork resident Craig Brock, who has shot two of the elk, said bulls do tend to be more of a problem than the cows because they’re larger and do more damage in traffic crashes, and, with their massive antlers, can whittle shrubs into twigs in moments.
Craig Brock said residents will be unhappy if wildlife officials order the shooting to stop, particularly those who have crashed cars into the animals.
“It’s probably helping even more than they know,” he said. “Even though we’ve not shot all that many, we have pushed them back and kept them away from the highways.”