Why has the TN Elk Restoration Project been such a failure?
Before one can start to analyze this problem, one first must recognize who the major players are. First and foremost is our State Wildlife Agency, TN Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). TWRA is responsible for managing the wildlife in TN and in years past, several decades ago, they did a good job of restoring our wildlife but for the past decade or longer they have allowed our wildlife to get out of control causing millions of dollars worth of damage to farm crops, orchards, the environment and loss of life in vehicle accidents caused by an over population of deer and other wildlife. Some areas of our state have been surveyed to have 80 to 100 deer per square mile. A more acceptable number would be 15 to 20 deer per square mile so as you can see, TN desperately needs new leadership at the top levels of TWRA in order to better manage our state wildlife population. At the present time, TWRA has major financial problems due to poor management practices and risky ventures.
Another major player in the Elk Restoration Project is the TN Wildlife Federation (TWF). This is a conservation group headed by Michael Butler who is the Executive Director of the TWF. While TWF was once a respected and beneficial conservation organization, it has now lost support from some of its Corporate Sponsors due to the way they promoted the Elk Restoration Project in the use of unsafe and risky elk that did not meet all State and Federal import regulations in regard to disease issues and due to the way that they bashed TN Elk and Deer Ranchers and tried to blame them for the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) to the eastern United States when the facts actually show that no TN Elk or Deer Rancher has ever been connected to CWD in any way. TWF also needs new leadership at the top, someone who serves the best interest of the people and conservation of our state instead of someone who is trying to promote his own personal interest or the personal interest of a few of the other Board of Directors (BOD) of the TWF.
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) is also a major player in the Elk Restoration Project. Since the beginning of the project in 2000, the RMEF has been involved in helping finance several different aspects of the project including the importation and transportation of the elk that were relocated to TN from Canada and KY. Because of the fear of importing diseases such as CWD, the RMEF has recently withdrawn their support for the movement of any elk but still offers financial support for other aspects of elk restoration. According to David Ledford, a RMEF representative in KY, the RMEF can not be party to the importation of unsafe and risky elk that might result in the importation of CWD or other diseases that would put TN's wildlife and livestock at risk. This decision was made because many of the wild herds are disease infected with such diseases as CWD, Tuberculosis (TB) and Brucellosis just to name a few. One only has to examine the health status and history of some of the wild herds like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Elk Island National Park (EINP) in Canada to realize the disease history and risk of these wild herds. None of these herds are suitable for restoration projects because of disease problems and the inadequate testing and monitoring of those diseases. Since the RMEF is dependant on donations to ensure their own survival, they could not assume the risk involved in importing and transporting these unsafe and risky elk that would jeopardize the health of TN's wildlife and livestock.
The TN Wildlife Resources Commission (TWRC) also plays a role in the Elk Restoration Project. The TWRC is a group of individuals, most of which are appointed by the Governor, whose sole purpose is to guide, direct and control TWRA so that they don't stray from their main objective which is to properly manage TN's wildlife. This truly is a flawed system in that the only requirement to becoming a TWRC is that you be a close friend or political supporter of the Governor. It appears that no wildlife management experience or knowledge of wildlife is necessary to become a Commissioner. It is impossible to effectively perform the job of guiding and directing a State Wildlife Agency when your only expertise is in raising funds for the election of the Governor.
According to TWRA and TWF records, 167 elk were released from December of 2000 to the spring of 2003. With the birth of calves, TWRA and TWF both projected to have well over 200 elk in the herd by the winter of 2003 and yet TWRA now estimates that in 2007 there are only a few over 200 or at most 250. According to a source close to TWRA that wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, the herd does not even have 200 elk. That same anonymous source also claims that many of the deceased elk were not tested for disease after death as TWRA had agreed to do to satisfy concerns of disease possibly being in the herd. The elk herd should be at least triple in size to what it now is but for some reason, the herd is not growing as it should.
Why is the herd not growing? Elk are a very prolific species with a long life span. Elk were once native to TN so this is a natural environment for them. Was disease imported with these elk that were allowed to enter TN without meeting all of the State and Federal regulations in regard to disease issues? Why is TWRA not testing every elk that dies to determine why so many have died?
Needing to give the herd a boost, TWRA recently tried to import more unsafe and risky elk again from EINP in Canada and Land Between the Lakes (LBL) in KY but after the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) was made aware that these two herds did not meet all of the Federal and State regulations for importation in regard to disease issues, the USDA denied TWRA's request for importation. TWRA refused to accept that and appealed the USDA decision base on the fact that TWRA had already spent over $100,000.00 in trapping the elk and getting them ready for transport and therefore should be allowed to import them even if it did put TN's wildlife and livestock at risk for disease but the USDA still held firm with their previous decision and denied TWRA's appeal.
Even after TWRA and TWF were reminded that these elk herds did not qualify for importation into TN or into the U.S., Michael Butler, the Executive Director of the TWF, made a public statement that they would in fact import these elk knowing that it would put TN's wildlife and livestock at risk for disease. It is hard to image why TWF, TWRA and TWRC think that the laws are for everyone except them. I expect that they will try this risky and unsafe elk importation again next year.
Several Elk Ranchers, around the Country, were willing to donate 30 elk to the Restoration Project. All of these elk met all of the State and Federal regulations for importation but TWRA refused the offer. It appears that while TWRA is willing to accept charity, they are not willing to accept charity from Elk Ranchers.
It is starting to look like TWRA's and TWF's only concerns about the elk restoration project is how much money they can generate from this project. While they should be concerned about restoring the species back to their natural habitat for the enjoyment of the people of this state, they have been consumed with trying to push legislation through that would allow TWRA to gamble away the elk herd through a lottery raffle scheme which would generate $50,000.00 to $100,000.00 per elk starting in the 2008 hunting season. These are TWRA's own figures based on the information provided them by the RMEF from how KY has done in their raffle scheme.
After the USDA denied TWRA's request for importation of these unsafe elk, there was such an uproar from the public that TWRA pulled their bill from the Legislators that would have, if passed, allowed TWRA to raffle off lottery tickets for the privilege to hunt these elk. It seems as though this would have been TWRA's answer to their financial problems but it was not to be. This is just another form of gambling and we certainly don't need that.
What does the future hold for TN's Elk Restoration Project?
David L. Autry