Herds of eastern elk now thrive, but Wyoming remains king of the hunt

***For all things Wyoming, sign up for our daily newsletter***

By Mark Heinz, Outdoors Reporter

As elk hunters in Wyoming enjoy a fruitful fall, a handful of lucky hunters in Virginia will have the opportunity to hunt elk during that state’s first hunting season.

They will join eastern elk hunters in several states as they take advantage of growing herds there. Most eastern moose are descended from transplants taken from western states outside of Wyoming. However, herds of Pennsylvania elk are direct descendants of the Yellowstone Park elk.

Despite its growing popularity, eastern moose hunting will likely never reach the level where it could affect the number of nonresident tag-seeking hunters in Wyoming and the West, said Mark Holyoak, director of communications in Missoula, Mont., Rocky Mountain headquarters. Elk Foundation.

“Those (eastern moose hunts) are all draw tags and typically very few are issued per state,” he said, adding that eastern hunters will still be drawn to adventures out west.

“Wyoming is Wyoming,” he said. “It’s still a unique place for people to go out and experience a hunt.”

A decade after elk were reintroduced to Virginia, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources ruled that the herds had grown large enough to allow hunting, according to the RMEF. Only five tags were issued for the 2022 season.

Pennsylvania, one of the most generous eastern states, issued 178 moose tags for the 2022 hunting seasons, according to the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

An indigenous species returns

The word “moose” often conjures up images of large herds scattered across vast, rugged mountain landscapes in Wyoming and elsewhere in the Rocky Mountain West.

But the lands east of the Mississippi River once held thriving native elk herds that ranged from the Wisconsin plains to the hardwood forests of the Appalachian Mountains, said Steven Dobey of Kentucky, RMEF’s conservation program manager for eastern from United States.

“There was a subspecies of eastern moose,” he said. “Physically, it wasn’t much different from the Rocky Mountain moose, but the eastern moose adapted to different habitats and behaviors.”

Habitat loss and unregulated killing wiped out the eastern moose around the 1880s, he said.

The first attempts to restore the eastern moose were made in the 1910s. Moose were transplanted from Yellowstone Park in Pennsylvania. The herds that live there now are direct descendants of those Wyoming elk, according to the Pennsylvania Wilds website.

Moose reintroductions began in Kentucky in 1997 and spread to other eastern states, Dobey said. None of the moose involved in those later efforts came from Wyoming.

Reclaimed coal mines are good habitat

Kentucky elk herds did so well that they became the source for transplanting the species to several other states, including Virginia, Dobey said.

“Reclaimed sites from old Kentucky coal mines created open grasslands that moose loved,” he said.

Elk also seemed to prefer whatever meadows and open space they could find to the east, Dobey said. But they have also learned to adapt to the dense hardwood forests.

“Whenever there is good acorn production in the forest, the moose take advantage of that,” he said. “People often think that elk hunting involves a lot of glazing in open spaces, like it’s done in the west, and our hunters here were trying the same approach.

“But when there’s a good acorn crop, the elk are right in those woods with the deer and squirrels, enjoying that high-calorie food source.”

Dobey has yet to put out a moose tag in the East, but he looks forward to the opportunity.

“I have been able to ‘hunt’ these moose with my telemetry devices and camera for hundreds of miles throughout the southern Appalachians,” he said.

***For all things Wyoming, sign up for our daily newsletter***