HOLDEN, W.Va. — The last time elk wandered the hills and hollows of West Virginia John J. Jacob was the governor. One hundred- forty years later, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin welcomed a crowd of more than 500 to a former mountaintop mining site in Logan County Monday to show the first 24 elk in the Mountain State in four generations. The event marked the official dedication of West Virginia’s Elk Reintroduction program.
“If you drive around the state there’s all kinds of Elk Creeks and Elk Rivers, there used to be a huge population in West Virginia,” said Tomblin. “This has been a project people have worked on for the last five to ten years and talked about. Today we are obviously celebrating.”
The elk were staged in a soft holding pen on the Tomblin Wildlife Management areas several miles west of Corridor G near the community of Holden. The animals were somewhat shy, but eventually showed themselves to the anxious onlookers. Spectators strained their eyes or used binoculars and the most powerful zoom they could muster from a smartphone to capture the moment.
“It’s unreal,” said John Bradford who drove from Nicholas County to witness the event. “I’ve got grandsons who will get the enjoyment out it the most. This is a great thing they’re doing.”
Brad Furrow held his three-year old son Bentlee in his arms and pointed to the elk in the distance. The father and son tandem had a quick five minute drive up the mountain from their home to be a part of history.
“One day when he and I are walking through the woods hunting, I’ll be able to tell him, ‘That elk you just saw. You and I were there when they first put them in here.'” Furrow noted. “That really means a lot to me.”
Furrow is one of the many in Logan County who have been eagerly anticipating this day for a long time.
“When I heard about this ceremony, I was working and read it on the internet,” he said. “I was literally jumping up and down. I can’t believe it’s finally here. I’ve been hearing about them planning to bring in elk since I was in high school and I can’t believe they’re actually here.”
The day was made possible by a lot of hard work from a lot of individuals. Many of them Division of Natural Resources Wildlife staff who quietly stood on the hill behind the crowd as the governor spoke. Several sheepishly grinned and tried to contain their own personal satisfaction about the accomplishment.
“You start in your career and you don’t imagine being able to be involved in a project like this, let alone being chosen to lead it on the ground stages,” said Elk Project Leader Randy Kelly. “It’s very gratifying to be involved.”
Twenty-four elk were on hand for the ceremony. The soft holding pen will soon have the gate opened and the elk will be allowed to wander out on their own into the wild of West Virginia. The decision to keep them in the pen was made for the protection of the animals. Kelly and others feared trying to run them out of the pen for a photo op would be unnecessary stress. The actual opening of the pen will be done at an undisclosed time in the next few weeks.
The elk were trapped and put through a battery of disease tests at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area near Cadiz, Kentucky in November. They were transported to West Virginia last Friday.
The elk reintroduction plan calls for 75 elk to eventually be released on the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area. Another 75 will be eventually released at another site which is yet to be selected. The area of the Wyoming and Mingo County border is expected to be the next likely spot for an introduction.
The Division of Natural Resources remains in contact with a number of states and is working to arrange the procurement of other animals.
“Hopefully next winter they’ll get another load,” said Bill Carmen with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “I know there are some discussions going on with Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky DNR for Eastern Kentucky elk, and with the state of Arizona.”
Monday’s event marks the 2017 introduction. The next introduction will likely be in the winter of 2018 and each subsequent winter. The idea is to move the elk during the early winter months since many of the females are bred. Officials try to avoid transporting the pregnant cows late in their term to avoid potential health problems.
Sportsmen paid the freight on the cost of the introduction from the purchase of hunting, fishing, and trapping license and from excise taxes paid on firearms and archery equipment. Much of the cost was on land procurement for elk habitat in southern West Virginia. Financing for the land also came from other sources like the Conservation Fund which helped purchase more than 32,000 acres in southern West Virginia, the largest single acquisition of land in state history for conservation.
“The Conservation Fund is proud to partner with the Division of Natural Resources in establishing a vast protected landscape of sustainably managed land for the new elk population.” said John Hankins, Vice-President of the Conservation Fund. “This historic effort is creating new opportunities on land that once supported the state through it resources, and it is redefining conservation in West Virginia to provide multiple tangible economic and environmental benefits to local communities.”
A grant from the Acres for America program, established by Walmart and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, supported the transfer of 10,922 acres from The Conservation Fund to the WV DNR in 2016.
“The return of any species to its native range is a reason for celebration. Bringing such a magnificent species as the elk back to the hills of West Virginia is one of the most significant reintroductions in recent years,” said Jeff Trandahl, Executive Director and CEO, National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
“Walmart is proud to support the longstanding efforts to bring elk back to West Virginia today.” added Wal-Mart Vice-President of Store Planning John Clark. “We know they will both thrive and help to inspire future generations of West Virginians to take care of and appreciate the state’s incredible wildlife and natural resources.”
“There’s a lot of excitement,” concluded Governor Tomblin. “Having this elk herd back in West Virginia is something positive for southern West Virginia. It’s a very exciting day.”