Wildlife refuges and Elk are replacing Kentucky coal mines

The coal industry may be dying in Kentucky, but on the abandoned, strip-mined mountain tops, hope is growing in the form of an Elk. A nature preserve called Boone’s Ridge is planning for a grand opening in 2022 in Bell County. There, populations of native animals like Elk are returning for the first time since the Civil War. The impressive animals’ presence draws in tourism dollars, replenishing local economies.

Now, ravaged landscapes where miners tore down mountains have found a new purpose–restoring nature as it heals.

The return of the Elk after a century

People have mined coal in Eastern Kentucky since the early 1800s. As they mined, local wildlife disappeared. Once, wildlife was overflowing. For example, when Daniel Boone arrived in the late 1700s, he found “everywhere abundance of wild beasts of all sorts, through this vast forest.”

A century later, wildlife like Elk, buffalo, river otters, bald eagles, bobcats, and other animals were all decimated or eliminated.

Strip mining devasted the local wildlife and also the people living nearby. As studies show, people living near mines had a higher risk of cancer and other illnesses. Finally, the mines started closing in the late 90s. What was left was a barren wasteland, but slowly nature is reclaiming the land.

The New York Times shared the incredible story of the 12,000-acre nonprofit nature reserve. It’s one of the thousands of sites in 16 counties where reclaimed mines are now unexpectedly wildlife havens again.

Ecotourism replaces strip mining

As the animals return, there’s a boost to the economy.

“When Boone’s Ridge opens in 2022, it will offer a museum and opportunities for bird-watching and animal spotting. Two independent consultants have estimated that it could draw more than 1 million annual visitors and add over $150 million per year to the regional economy. This is in Bell County, in rural Appalachia, which has a poverty rate of 38 percent and an average household income of just under $25,000, making it one of the poorest counties in the United States,” writes Oliver Whang.

Amazingly, the Elks’ return began when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation helped airlift 1,500 Elk to Kentucky in the late 90s. Since then, the population in the reclaimed lands has shot up to around 13,000. 

According to the report, the wild areas have many uses, from controlled hunting to bird watching, to museums for tourists.

“The economic impact is tangible. The state now issues a couple hundred tags for elk hunting each year, and a small market has developed — elk sightseeing tours, elk hunting guides — that adds about $5 million to local economies, according to the state fish and wildlife department.”

As we’ve seen with endangered animals in other parts of the world, everybody can win when we cherish and protect wildlife. Although there may have been temporary gains for some who mined coal, a sustainable future looks a lot brighter, greener, and healthier.

Featured image: Elk via Pixabay

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