CommunitySpotlight Series


'There's nothing like it': Elk tours continue to enhance eastern Kentucky tourism

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Posted at 7:00 PM, Aug 24, 2023

PRESTONSBURG, Ky. (LEX 18) — Visitors to the state of Kentucky, even some locals, may be surprised to learn that the Bluegrass boasts the largest elk herd east of the Rocky Mountains.

Elk are no strangers to the Commonwealth. In fact, they were here long before any of us.

“With the land being settled and people pushing west in the 1800s, we saw a bunch of wildlife eradicated around 1850, and the elk herd was part of that,” explained Trinity Shepherd, park manager at Jenny Wiley State Resort Park.

In one of the most successful wildlife conservation efforts in history, elk came home to Kentucky in 1997.

The moment made history. Some will remember iconic photos capturing the thousands of spectators watching as a handful of elk were released into Kentucky.

Over the course of six years, around 1,500 elk were released into Kentucky. According to Shepherd, the herd now sits around 10,000 elk.

“Being good stewards of the land and wanting to be a leader in this nation when it comes to our wildlife resources, Kentucky said, 'Hey, this is up to us. if we have the ability to do this, we can right a wrong here by bringing these animals back,’” said Shepherd.

Along with making strides for wildlife conservation, elk reentry brought a tourism boom to eastern Kentucky, filling a void left by the decline of the coal industry.

“The economic impact of our elk herd is in the millions each year,” said Shepherd.

Elk tours catered to wildlife enthusiasts, photographers, hunters, tourists, and locals have provided an opportunity to see an animal they once would have had to travel miles to see.

For Nathan Harless, a local turned Jenny Wiley naturalist and recreation supervisor, spotting an elk never gets old.

“There's nothing like it,” said Harless. “I've seen thousands of elk in my lifetime, and it never gets boring, it doesn't matter how big it is, how small it is, you see an elk and you get excited.”

By promoting the backyard of the Bluegrass, elk spotting has and will continue to put Prestonsburg on the map.

Elk tours are offered from September to March.

You can learn more about the tours and sign up for an elkspotting experience here.