Researchers are beginning a new three-year study looking at elk reproduction and survival more than two decades after they were first reintroduced to Kentucky.

Elk used to be native to Kentucky, but settlers’ unregulated hunting wiped them out before the start of the Civil War. In the late ‘90s Kentucky Fish and Wildlife began repopulating with elk from western states.

Today, about 10,000 elk are spread among 16 eastern counties — as far west as McCreary and as far north and east as Johnson County.

Beginning this month, the University of Kentucky and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources are teaming up to learn more about the commonwealth’s new generation of elk.

“We know a lot has changed. When we looked at this information these were elk that were born into the west and brought into the east,” said Gabe Jenkins, deer and elk coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “Now nearly all of those animals from the west are dead. We have almost a completely new Kentucky bred, Kentucky-born population.”

Jenkins describes the typical elk diet as somewhere between cattle and deer. They need more grass than a whitetail, but less than your typical bovine. That makes for some interesting dynamics in eastern Kentucky, where forested knobs are more common than meadows.

Some of the most common grasslands in Eastern Kentucky are leftover from reclaimed mines, but as those lands mature, they become more shrubby and wooded.

“Elk need grass to survive and so if you have this decline in the mining industry and this decline in the amount of grass being put on the landscape, you’re limiting the amount of habitat,” he said.

The new study seeks to understand how Kentucky’s elk are surviving in this habitat. Researchers plan to use helicopters to locate and capture hundreds of elk over the course of the study.

Female elk, known as “cow” elk will be fitted with devices that alert researchers when a calf is born, while male “bull” elk will be fitted with tracking collars.

Funding for the study comes from a federal excise tax on sporting good equipment as well as in-state hunting license sales dollars, Jenkins said.

Kentucky issued about 600 permits to hunt elk last year. Those hunting dollars are one more reason Jenkins said elk are important to Eastern Kentucky.

“Having the elk is also economically important to Eastern Kentucky, whether that’s directly from hunting, the hunters that come in, or from wildlife viewing,” Jenkins said.

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter.