— The majestic return of Elk to WV after more than 140 years.
Don’t be fooled by your friends and family in the southern part of West Virginia this holiday season if they post pictures or videos of wildlife with captions like “I believe,” or #Blitzen. We are a little south of caribou territory, but it turns out that due to some recent environmental changes, and the persistent efforts of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR), we will soon be inviting some old friends back to the state.
Prior to the 1800s, elk herds were prominent throughout the U.S., including in West Virginia (otherwise, naming the “Elk River” as such might raise some eyebrows today). However, when increasing numbers of settlers moved into the state, the elk population began to decline due to hunting and habitat destruction from unregulated resource removal—resulting in the last known regular sightings of elk in the state in 1875.
Randy Kelley, Elk Project Leader for the WVDNR, gave some perspective on how they’ve acquired the opportunity to bring back some of West Virginia’s most alluring original residents. “It really started in 1972, when WVDNR held its first feasibility studies for reintroducing the species to West Virginia,” he said. “Interest surged again in the late 1990s after Kentucky successfully reintroduced elk. We began to really look at this idea again in 2005 with some more feasibility studies, but have only now been able to make this plan a reality.”
These studies considered not only if there was a space in West Virginia that would allow the species to thrive, but also how their reintroduction would affect the current habitat. Though invasive mining throughout the state has mostly been portrayed negatively regarding its effect on the habitat, this changing landscape may provide opportunity for greater biological diversity.
“Eighty-nine percent of the state is forested,” explained Kelley. “When mining efforts result in deforestation, it can improve the habitat for animals such as elk, grassland birds, and other grazers.”
The mining efforts to which Kelley is referring are the southern coalfields of West Virginia, a portion of which WVDNR has spent the last 12-16 months trying to acquire in order to create public access land. Ultimately, forty-four thousand new acres have been secured in part of seven counties (Boone, Lincoln, Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Wayne, and Wyoming) in the Southern Coal Fields Region—for wildlife-associated recreation and conservation. This space will provide a habitat for elk restoration, and will be known as the Elk Management Area.
While establishing a feasible location, WVDNR was also checking into a suitable source from which to relocate strong and healthy elk into the state. After witnessing the success of the restoration of the Kentucky herd, WVDNR has been working with the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area (located between KY and TN) to slowly relocate some of its elk population. This process has been slow, as Kentucky had already committed to providing some animals to areas in Wisconsin.
“Land Between the Lakes has been more than gracious in allowing us to pull from their source herd,” said Kelley. “We just started catching the animals on November fourteenth, and so we’re holding the potential animals there in an enclosure of seven hundred acres. On November eighteenth, we began veterinary testing for any disease or other health considerations.”
WVDNR will first reintroduce approximately 20 elk to the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, with hopes to reintroduce as many as 75-100 more at a second site within the Elk Management Area over the next one to three years.
“We hope to release a total of nearly two hundred elk throughout this area depending on availability of healthy animals from our source—with this number potentially being achieved anywhere from three to eight years from now,” Kelley affirmed. “After being brought into West Virginia, they’ll remain in an enclosure for a week or two—to give them a chance to get the adrenaline out of their system so they don’t run off. Once they’ve had the opportunity to acclimate to the area, establish some herding behavior, regroup, and calm down, we’ll sneak in there and let the gates open to let them meander off into the countryside.”
The Elk Reintroduction Program is highly favored among the scientific, naturalist, and general community perspectives for a multitude of reasons. Kelley suggested that, eventually, hunting these elk would likely be an option in West Virginia, but it wouldn’t be possible until after a healthy herd had been established. “Just having these majestic creatures back in our state will increase tourism,” he said. “These animals are big and beautiful, and they’re fascinating to watch. People love to come and hear the bull’s bugle.”
The sound of bugling is one of the characteristics for which elk are best known. The bull (male) elk will use a high-pitch vocal call, a “bugle,” to create herding structure. Typically, one bull will be followed by a small group of cow (female) elk, otherwise known as a harem. According to Kelley, the bull elk will use its bugle to keep the harem organized and warn other bulls.
He implored anyone learning of this elk restoration project to take full advantage of this opportunity to see these animals in their natural habitat. “I’m a native West Virginian—born and raised—and educated at West Virginia University. As a young biologist, this was not something I thought would ever happen. Me and the guys I work with are so excited to bring a species like this back to our state. As a state, we need to own this and protect our habitat.”
The first group of elk is expected for transport to the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area as early as mid-December. This type of collaboration with Land Between the Lakes represents a long-term effort by WVDNR to keep the Mountain State wild and wonderful by securing a future for one of its most captivating original inhabitants.