SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. — If all goes according to plan, the wait for the next 60 elk for southern West Virginia won’t be nearly as long as expected. The Arizona Game and Fish Commission last week approved action to allow for the transfer of up to 60 Arizona elk to West Virginia as part of the Mountain State’s reintroduction program in the next two to four years. The effort may happen faster according to Paul Johansen, Chief of Wildlife for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.
“The action the commission took was to allow for the transfer of 60 animals this coming season,” said Johansen. “With the option to potentially, depending on how their source animals are doing and how those animals do when they get to West Virginia, to consider future translocation efforts.”
This week staff of the West Virginia DNR and Arizona Game and Fish discussed some of the logistics of the plan.
The elk, which are currently roaming free in the Arizona high country, will be rounded up during January, February, or March of 2018. The roundup will involve a number of means for capture, even including the use of helicopters.
The animals will be quarantined for a period of time to undergo a battery of disease testing before they are shipped to West Virginia. Johansen indicated his agency is confident the tests won’t pose an obstacle.
“Their animals are extremely healthy and viable. They are not one of the states that has detected chronic wasting disease and there are other disease issues we wanted to be sure we were avoiding as well,” Johansen explained. “Arizona fits the bill. According to their test protocols they have very healthy animals and we are very confident from a risk assessment we are bringing animals in from a very sound source.”
Last year staff from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources worked with the U.S. Forest Service to trap and transfer the state’s initial round of elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky. Those animals were transported back to West Virginia in livestock trailers by DNR personnel. The trip from Arizona will be a far more substantial undertaking.
“We want to make sure we maintain the health of these animals. Their safety and care is of upmost concern,” Johansen said. “We’ll be using professional drivers and loading them up in Arizona in cattle hauling vehicles. I’m certain we’ll be using private contractors who know how to handle livestock and 18 wheelers and deliver them in as safe and efficient a manner as we can.”
Last year three of the 24 elk brought to West Virginia died. The loss was blamed on stress from the trip. While unfortunate, Johansen said up to ten percent mortality, is considered average when moving any species of wildlife.
Although the general plan is in place, nothing can be known for certain because a lot depends on the elk. One of the great unknowns is whether state wildlife officials can locate and trap up to 60 animals in the window of time designated. Arizona officials will also be cautious to make sure removing the elk from their herd doesn’t negatively impact the numbers in their state.
It’s the next step in a plan which will continue for several more years. The 2018 introduction will take place on the Tomblin Wildlife Management area near Holden in Logan County, the same place the first elk were released in 2016. The West Virginia Elk Plan calls for an introduction at another site in the southern West Virginia elk zone eventually in the area of Wyoming or McDowell County. The second release site is still being decided according to wildlife officials. Work there will not happen until the capacity for the Tomblin WMA is fulfilled.