HOLDEN, W.Va. — Four years into the West Virginia elk reintroduction program and project leader Randy Kelly with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources is starting to see the ebb and flow of a growing herd.
Kelly constantly monitors movement of the original elk placed on the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area. Those original animals are fitted with GPS tracking collars. Kelly can detect movement which seems to indicate a cow has broken off on her own likely to drop a calf. He sets up cameras in likely spots to catch them and waits. He’s caught several of the 2019 calves on camera, but it’s still unknown if they’re male or female.
“When you see more than one at a time, you can look at size difference because it’s pretty apparent the bulls are bigger, but you just don’t know because you have no idea if they were born around the same time,” Kelly said in a conversation on West Virginia Outdoors.
To grow the herd, he needs females. He tranquilized four calves from 2018 randomly during the spring along with some of the adults to some observation work. Three of those four were female.
“I hope that ratio continues,” he laughed. “I’m hoping that was a good sample, but I know it really wasn’t.”
For the time being, natural reproduction is the only growth for the West Virginia elk herd. The Elk Reintroduction Plan originally called for elk to be obtained from other states and transplanted each year for at least seven years on the Tomblin WMA. But, there are a lot of variables in the plan which are often out of the agency’s control. No elk were transferred to West Virginia in 2019 because none were available. So far, nothing is locked in for 2020 either.
“We don’t have anything signed on the dotted line for this coming year,” Kelly said.
“We’re actively pursuing healthy elk herds from a variety of sources, but it’s a matter of working out details with other states. You have to take what’s available and you have to vet any state willing to give us elk to make sure we bring in a healthy herd.”
The health of the herd in West Virginia since the reintroduction has been solid, but there have been setbacks. During the past year, Kelly noted several elk were lost to brain worm which was confirmed by necropsy. He suspected two more would also probably be verified as casualties of the parasite known as meningeal worm.The loss is about 10 to 15 percent of the animals introduced, which Kelly said is in the range of what was expected going into the program.
“The high side can be a lot worse. Missouri at times has reported they’ve had way up into the 30 to 40 percent range. There are other issue that can affect that, but the literature says you can expect about 10 percent in a normal year,” he said.
The brain worm issue is nothing new nor was it unexpected. According to Kelly, brain worm is a parasite which impacts all cervids. It doesn’t appear to have a major impact on whitetail deer, but elk, moose and other cervids are an entirely different story.
“We’ve lost several to that this year,” he explained. “It’s an issue that exists in Virginia and in Kentucky as well as Missouri. We expected it. One of the problems that seems to be pushing ours higher is the Arizona elk have shown a particular problem with brain worm.”
Kelly’s theory is the condition of the Arizona elk after they were finally released into the wild in West Virginia was less than ideal. The USDA required the elk to be held in a 120 quarantine in West Virginia after being transported across the country from Arizona. The heat and cramped quarters of the holding pen created dangerous conditions for the elk. Add to it elk don’t handle stress well to start with, and the quarantine proved too much for some. Several elk died while waiting for the end of the quarantine, others struggled to maintain health after their release.
Although DNR officials and even Governor Jim Justice attempted to get a waiver to the USDA rule, it was denied. Kelly laments the loss, but also looks at it as another lesson learned going forward in the program.
“As we move forward we’ll go back to the well again if we can get an agreement with another state or bring in some more from Arizona. We’ll ask if we can get a wavier on it again. Hopefully we can prove this is what happened in the facility and this is what happened when they were released. Hopefully we can bring some common sense into the matter,” he said.