This landscape is home to one of the greatest wildlife management conservation successes in recent American history. And a smoky facelift makes it even better.
These are the southern Appalachian Mountains where, over the last several decades, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation successfully worked with state fish and wildlife agencies and others to return wild, free-ranging elk to their historic range in Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The combined elk population in the region is far north of 12,000 across elk range that since moved beyond restoration to active management.
In 2022, as part of a concerted effort to support elk and other wildlife in the East, RMEF and its partners allocated more than $1.45 million over two years for 15 projects, including this one. In early 2023, crews ignited a prescribed fire west of Pound, Virginia, and south of Jenkins, Kentucky, along the border shared by the two states in the heart of the elk range.
They used a combination of aerial and ground ignition to place fire on the Clinch Ranger District of the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. The flames triggered a transformation across more than 5,300 acres of forest floor by burning off older, less palatable and nutritious ground cover that will be replaced with early seral vegetation.
The result reduces competition for the regeneration of oaks and yellow pines so key to the region, while also stimulating growth of blueberries, huckleberries, blackberries and other leafy native vegetation and grasses. Not only is this good news for elk, but also for deer, black bears, small mammals, turkey, upland birds and songbirds. And improved wildlife habitat means improved hunting opportunity.
The habitat enhancement work also removed the buildup of dried leaves, twigs and downfall, improving forest health and reducing the risk of large wildfires.