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Sleepy sightseers piled into vans at a state resort park for a nearly hour-long drive in the dark to an Appalachian coal mining site that's become home to another valuable natural resource in eastern Kentucky.
The group gave up some extra sleeping time on a Sunday morning for a chance to get a close-up look at a majestic animal that has made a strong comeback after disappearing from these Kentucky mountains for more than a century.
That first glimpse of an elk at daybreak, as the sun peeked over the crest of hillsides, was well worth the early wakeup call. At that point, the hunt was on for visitors armed with cameras and binoculars. The two vans rumbled along bumpy dirt roads cutting through a broad expanse of countryside flattened by years of coal mining near the city of Hazard.
"We're in chase mode now," said tour guide Trinity Shepherd, the park naturalist at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park at Prestonsburg.
Everyone had caught elk fever. The visitors peered out the van windows looking for antlers or patches of brown nestled in the green vegetation. It didn't take long to find more elk and to hear a bull elk bugle — a foghorn-type bellow heard during fall mating season. At first, the animals were spotted in solitary clusters of ones or twos.
"There goes a big bull, right there," Shepherd said, pointing to a hulking male elk with an impressive rack of antlers. Not far away, five elk were found at an area that provided panoramic views of patchy fog draped over the hollows.
Everyone climbed out of the vans to gaze at the animals, found meandering a few hundred yards away in lush grass and brush planted by the coal company as part of a reclamation project once surface mining had ended.
Elk in the region have thrived on the man-made meadows planted after mining companies removed towering ridgetops in a controversial mining method known as mountaintop removal.
Soon, everyone was back in the van, ready for the next sightings. It wasn't long before three more were spotted — two females and a large male about 70 yards away in a field.
"My lord, he's a nice one. Isn't he gorgeous," said Sharyn Mallicoat of Albany, Ky. The elk didn't scamper when the van pulled up. They stared right back. The only sound was from a flock of geese flying over a ridge. "He's a good bull, but there are bigger," Shepherd said, estimating the animal was 4 or 5 years old.
After several minutes, the show ended as the animals meandered off. "He said he's had enough," Shepherd said. "He's decided we're the ugliest looking elk he's ever seen."
A few minutes later, a small bull elk crossed the road ahead of the vans. Then, at the top of another ridge, the sightseers came across a massive bull elk and 10 females that stood for several minutes before finally running off. "Is that not awesome," Shepherd said.
Male elk grow to about 850 pounds, and females reach about 650 pounds. Other clusters of elk were soon spotted, but Shepherd had a new quest — to find a massive bull elk seen the day before by another tour group. The vans passed thousands of acres at the sprawling mining site, but the prize bull elk wasn't found.
"There's the big one on top of the hill. Oh, you just missed him," Shepherd teased as he kept a sharp lookout.
The area is teeming with other wildlife — deer, turkey, geese and many other birds. But the elk are the star attractions. Elk disappeared from Kentucky around the time of the Civil War, mainly because of overhunting.
They returned in 1997, when wildlife managers started the restoration by bringing in elk from several Western states in what was heralded as an important ecology and tourism program.
The startup herds have grown to about 10,000 as the elk have flourished in southeastern Kentucky. They have no natural predators, lush food sources and milder winters than out West. As their numbers have swelled, some elk have strayed from the Appalachian backcountry to come into contact with people.
Those rogue elk have trampled gardens, flattened fences and caused car crashes. There is a limited elk hunting season in Kentucky. But more and more visitors are stalking the animals with cameras and binoculars. Two state parks in eastern Kentucky — Jenny Wiley and Buckhorn Lake State Resort Park at Buckhorn — offer fall and winter elk tours.
Shepherd said he scouts the animals before the tours begin to make sure the sightseers from Jenny Wiley get a look at the animals. "We have a 100 percent success rate," he said. During the fall mating season, many herds feature one or two mature bull elk and their "harem" of 15 to 20 females.
Small clusters of bachelor groups of young male elk also roam the countryside. In the winter, once the mating season is over, the elk herds will expand to as many as 100 to 200 animals, Shepherd said. Once the viewing was finished, the vans stopped to give the sightseers a chance to stretch their legs and listen to a short elk lesson from Shepherd.
Then it was back in the vans for the 45-minute drive back to Jenny Wiley park to complete the five-hour tour.
The tours stretch from mid-September to March, and Shepherd said he never tires of looking at the animals.
"When you go out and see these animals back in their native range here, there's nothing like it for me," he said.