By Ted Waddell
GRAHAMSVILLE March 16, 2001 Ever seen an elk walking through the woods in the Catskills?
Probably not, unless you were an early Native American or one of the first European colonists to land on the shores of what would eventually become the Empire State.
But a good number of people are looking to change that.
In recent years, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) has spearheaded efforts to reintroduce the native species to areas that it once freely roamed and the Catskill Mountains, especially Sullivan County, is at the top of the list.
The RMEF is based in Missoula, MT. The organization was founded about 18 years ago and is dedicated to ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat. In NYS, there are currently 14 chapters with a membership of about 12,000 people. The Catskill chapter was established two years ago. The RMEF has a total membership of approximately 110,000, primarily in the U.S. and Canada.
On Wednesday, Wally John, vice-chairman of the Catskills chapter of the RMEF, and Ken W. Kloeber, a private environmental consulting engineer, talked to the Town of Neversink board about the RMEFs proposal to restore elk to the Catskills.
The goal of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is to preserve elk, increase their habitat and restore them to their original range throughout the United States, said John.
According to John, there were an estimated 8,000 elk in America at the turn of the century. The approximate elk population in the U.S. currently numbers about 800,000, he added.
The RMEF proposal calls for the restoration of the American elk (Cervus elaphus) to the central Catskill Mountains. The project is being reviewed under the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA).
The next step in getting a NYS Department of Enviromental Conservation (DEC) permit is to prepare a required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which evaluates environmental, social and economic impacts of free-ranging elk in the proposed area.
The cost of the $93,000 feasibility study prepared by the State University of New York College of Environmental Science & Forestry, and the Human Dimensions Research Unit at Cornell, was paid for by the RMEF.
The study was completed in February 1999, and it indicated that a successful elk restoration was biologically feasible, and that communities in Greene, Sullivan and Ulster counties have the greatest potential to benefit economically.
The plan calls for the release of 100 native elk into the Catskill Mountains at one to three locations over a one- to five-year period. Eventually, elk could possibly be seen throughout the northern and eastern reaches of Sullivan County, including the towns of Rockland, Neversink, Fallsburg and Mamakating highly likely areas, in fact, according to the study.
The RMEF, said Kloeber, would pay all costs of the restoration, including the EIS, capturing the animals, testing for disease, quarantining, transportation, and releasing the elk into the Catskill Mountains.
Once the elk become free-ranging, their management would be the responsibility of the NYS DEC, he added.
According the the RMEF proposal to restore elk to the Catskills, at the time of European colonization, an eastern species of elk was present everywhere in the state except the central Adirondacks and Long Island. The last recorded sighting of a native eastern elk in NYS was in 1847, and by the late 1800s, elk had vanished east of the Mississippi River.
In 1901, 175 elk were released in the Adirondacks near Raquette Lake. Six years later, the herd of Rocky Mountain elk had grown to about 350 animals but soon declined due to poaching and a form of brain disease. The last known elk from this population was reportedly killed in 1946.
Before the presentation, several members of the board talked about the proliferation of white-tailed deer in the area and expressed concern about introducing a species that might damage private property.
According to John, elk are generally grazers, while deer are browsers.
In the winter, there would probably be competition between elk and deer for food, he said.
John noted that several recent efforts to reintroduce native species have been successful: bald eagles, river otter, peregrine falcons and white-tailed deer.
The bottom line is, if its going to happen in the Catskills, its going to be the peoples will, said John, adding that the extremely expensive process to restore elk will be the result of public input and official approval.
Town of Neversink Supervisor Georgianna Lepke said the board would reserve comment and refer the proposal to the Sullivan County Sportsmans Federation and local rod and gun clubs.
If you can dream about the future, visualize a well-established, free-ranging elk herd forming the basis of a fall elk festival, timed to coincide with the bull elk bugling season, said Kloeber, speaking of the elks bugle-like mating call. An event like this could span a long weekend and have many venues in towns and villages located throughout the Catskill region.