How the elk is helping restore wildlife habitats in coal country

One of the many awful side effects that come with coal mining is that the mining process completely transforms areas that were once teeming with flora and fauna. In the Appalachian Mountains, coal mining companies regularly blow up the top hundred feet of the mountain to expose coal seams, removing precious grass, scrub, and trees. The technique, according to Duke University, has left parts of Appalachia 40 percent flatter. Coal companies are legally required to restore the land they destroy once the mining operations are complete, but oftentimes, these restorations are done on the cheap and don’t support a thriving ecosystem. Faced with the quandary of what to do with these problematic lands, several states have used them as reintroduction sites for elk in hopes of enriching the habitat for diverse animal species. And the hopes that follow involve some economic revival in coal country from tourist dollars spent by wildlife watchers and, eventually, hunters. Elk once were native to the Appalachian mountains, but the population was driven to near extinction by habitat loss and overhunting. Now they’re being introduced to the lands for a number of reasons. The main reason is that elk are a keystone species that “act as habitat modifiers through grazing, trampling, wallowing, and uprooting of existing vegetation.” Through their modification of the land, they create habitats that support other kinds of animals such as rare birds and all kinds of amphibians. So far, conservationists say the reintroduction of elk is paying dividends in what used to be coal country. A study on five Tennessee counties where elk populations have been restored counted about $10.25 million in total economic value added. What this shows us is that even the areas that have been damaged for decades by mining can be restored through the power of nature.

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