CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A Texas drought and scarcity of quail in the Lone Star State has slowed the progress of the return of elk to the hills of West Virginia.
West Virginia Division of Natural Resources Director Frank Jezioro updated members of the legislature in Charleston Thursday on the status of the state’s elk reintroduction program. Jezioro said there are two steps which need to be accomplished. One will be to secure adequate land in southern West Virginia to establish a new herd. Step two will be acquiring the elk. Both are being pursued simultaneously.
Jezioro said state wildlife personnel have determined the best place to procure elk to begin a new West Virginia herd is in Kentucky. The Kentucky elk have no history of disease and have thrived in the reclaimed mine lands in the eastern part of the Bluegrass State. The terrain is almost identical to the southern West Virginia coalfields where the state is looking to reintroduce the population.
However, Kentucky won’t let the high value wildlife go without a price. Kentucky wildlife officials are looking to bolster other wildlife populations in their state using elk as trade bait. Already Kentucky wildlife officials want grouse and are working on an elk for grouse trade with Wisconsin. Kentucky also wants quail. Although West Virginia has no quail, Jezioro said we have the means to acquire them.
“Kentucky didn’t want deer or bear and we have no quail, but Texas wanted eastern wild turkeys,” Jeizoro said. “We’ve already provided Texas with the eastern wild turkeys they wanted and now the problem is getting the quail. Texas has been through a drought and most of their quail are on private land, so it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any quail immediately. But when they give us the quail, we trade them to Kentucky, and they give us elk.”
A source indicated the state shipped 20 West Virginia turkeys to Texas this week. The birds spent an unexpected one day layover in the Atlanta airport when this week’s snow paralyzed the deep south, but arrived no worse for wear. The arrangement calls for another ten West Virginia turkeys to be shipped to Texas Parks and Wildlife Officials. It’s unclear how many quail West Virginia will receive in the exchange or how many Kentucky elk West Virginia will receive in the deal.
While the wheeling and dealing happens among elk, turkeys, and quail, the DNR’s other obstacle is finding suitable habitat for those elk to range once they arrive in West Virginia.
“We’ve given Natural Resources Commissioner Kenny Wilson the written agreement and he felt confident he could find a place in the southern coalfields where we could put them,” Jezioro said.
However Jezioro is adamant about qualifications on the property.
“If we put those elk on somebody’s property, we want a guarantee hunters will have access to those elk and be able to hunt them,” said Jezioro. “We don’t want to establish an elk herd, go to all this expense and spend a lot of money, and have somebody tell us down the road ,’We don’t want you on the property anymore.’ Once we have that type of agreement, we’re ready to move forward.”
Delegate Rupie Phillips of Logan County told the committee he believed the pieces were in place to advance the program quickly.
“I understand we’ve got the land already pretty much together and it’s also my understanding there’s a location in Kentucky that has several elk they’re wanting to give away, plus we have 300,000 dollars the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is willing to pledge to the program if we put them in southern West Virginia where they feel it’s the most appropriate,” said Phillips during the legislative hearing in an exchange with Jezioro.
Jezioro said he was unaware of what Phillips claimed, but they were waiting on the land agreement from Commissioner Wilson.
“I feel confident we can get those land agreements,” Wilson told MetroNews. “They have those agreements in hand and their legal teams are looking them over. I think we’re moving in the right direction, but the process doesn’t happen overnight.”
Phillips questioned the wording of the proposed land contract offered to land holding companies in the southern West Virginia coalfields.
“It’s a lot different from what Kentucky’s agreement is with the land companies,” said Phillips. “The land companies are willing to sign the Kentucky agreement.”
Wilson said the state has approached Dingess Run Land Company, McDonald Land Company, and Forest Land Group. The companies are the three major land holding companies in the region according to Wilson. He added the wording which caused reservations was only one or two lines and not a major obstacle.
Wilson confirmed the elk which appear to be readily available would come from western Kentucky in the Land Between the Lakes Region along the Tennessee border.
“Kentucky apparently has a surplus of elk in that area they’d be willing to give us,” Wilson said. “But it’s also a disease free herd.”
Wilson said a public meeting is set for February 27 for all interested parties. The meeting, slated for the Chief Logan Conference Center, will involve the formation of a new Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Chapter for fundraising activities and a discussion about the progress of the Elk Reintroduction Program.
“The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, representatives of the land companies, and interested lawmakers will all be there,” said Wilson. “It’s a meeting to discuss all of the issues and get everybody on the same page. This is going to happen, it just takes time.”