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Horseback tours for viewing elk

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265-pound black bear killed by Phelps hunter.

By Phil Junker, Outdoors Columnist

Few people could have envisioned the success of the elk reintroduction effort in Kentucky. It has succeeded the dreams of even the most optimistic planners.
Elk once roamed the eastern Kentucky hills, valleys and mountains, but then for decades disappeared from the landscape. Then Kentucky biologists and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation began discussing and planning the reintroduction, which resulted in transplanting seven elk from Western Kansas in 1997.
The elk reproduced so well, transplanting of additional elk was halted several years earlier than originally planned. Now, the state has a hunting season and in fact will provide elk to Missouri to help with a reintroduction of elk in three counties there.
Many people now head to Eastern Kentucky to view elk, and an outgrowth of the interest is Saddle Up Elk horseback tours in Knott County, near Hindman.   
Saddle Up Elk tours is operated by Willie Amburgey and his wife, Bernice. Amburgey is a Kentucky conservation officer, who has served in the eastern portion of the state during his career.
Willie says the nature of his CO job and his role in the elk tour operation provides flexibility for the two interests.   
Although Saddle Up Elk began five years ago, only twice have the two and one-half hour horseback trips failed to provide views of elk. “We don’t offer them in warm weather months when the elk find cooler cover in deep woods. Then, they are tougher to see.”
Tours start March 1 and continue until May 15 and start again Aug. 15 and continue until Dec. 15.
“The busiest time for the tours is the last two weeks of September and October,” explained Willie.
Although elk are seen on nearly every trip, and the scenery itself is worth a horseback ride, one of the best times for a trip is in the fall when there also is a reasonable chance to hear the elk bugling, which coincides with the mating season. The bulls create a symphony of sound to attract the ladies.
While many of the Saddle Up Elk tour customers come from Kentucky, there are numerous visitors from surrounding states, and riders have even come from foreign countries. Last year, there were four from Australia and two from France.
The cost of a trip is $65. Reservations are required.
A new service the Amburgey’s plan to offer this fall is tent camping with cots. It will be rustic and offer visitors a chance to experience more of the excitement of the bulls bugling.
For more information on Saddle Up Elk tours call 1-606-642-3656 or check out the website at: www.trailsrus.com/saddleuptours

SUCCESSFUL BEAR HUNT — Danny Smith of Phelps, Ky. carved his name into Kentucky’s hunting annals Saturday, Dec. 18, when he claimed the state’s first legally harvested black bear in the modern era, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish & Wildlife Resources.
Smith took the 265-pound male bear in Pike County about five hours into his hunt. He owned the state’s record for the largest bear for about a day, until Billy Joe Dixon, of Cumberland , took a 280-pound male on the second day, according to KDFWR information.
Smith, a lifetime Pike County resident and long-time coyote and deer hunter, was hunting coyotes last Friday when he came across “a lot of bear sign in the snow near a stand of Autumn Olive”. That prompted him to go buy his bear hunting license.
He hit the woods Saturday morning just after his Highway Department shift ended, but failed to find more bear sign. So he moved to an area where he had previously seen bear activity and picked up a fresh trail. He followed it for more than a mile around a mountain top. When the track he was following approached the location where he had first found the track, he backed off and began watching the area.
He used binoculars to scour the area and finally spotted the bear about 240 yards away. He made the shot just before 2 p.m. with his Savage .270 rifle.