Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s announcement he wants to see elk in West Virginia recently was a public acknowledgement of a direction West Virginia has been going toward for some time. DNR Director Frank Jezioro said he didn’t realize the Governor was ready to announce the plans, but says it’s been an unstated goal for quite a while.
"There haven’t been a whole lot of public comments out there, but in the back of our minds and the governor was really the idea of, ‘Can we really reestablish elk in West Virginia?’" said Jezioro in a recent edition of West Virginia Outdoors on MetronNews.
Jezioro believes it can be done, but there is a lot of ground work to do. The DNR instituted a deer management plan last year which takes a passive approach to managing those elk which wander into the state. The first item on the agenda is figuring out how many are actually here. Observation points with trail cameras are attempting to collect the data today and the effort will take several months to complete.
The idea is a stark contrast from professional opinions 30-years ago. The elk were hunted out of West Virginia in the late 1800’s. Efforts to reestablish them in the early 1900’s failed. During the most recent period of consideration to reestablish the elk, Dolly Sods was the focal point. The idea drew a lot of criticism.
"People realized elk migrate," Jezioro explained. "Once the temperature got down to zero and there was four feet of snow on Dolly Sods, those elk would wind up down in Petersburg along the river."
The idea of grazing elk didn’t sit well with farmers. It still doesn’t to a great degree in that part of the state. However, the most recent push isn’t for the Potomac Highlands, but the southern coalfield counties. There’s little to no agriculture in those counties, but it was always believed to be unsuitable as elk habitat. Kentucky’s experiment has changed the thinking.
"Two things have changed, the success Kentucky and now Virginia have had with reintroducing elk means we’re going to have some elk anyway," Jezioro said. "But the main thing is Kentucky’s success has happened in very similar habitat to what we have in southern West Virginia. That hadn’t been considered suitable elk habitat in the past, but Kentucky has shown those elk have adapted and they’re doing very well in that same habitat we have here in West Virginia."
So the elk can exist and expand in reclaimed strip jobs. But there are other significant hurdles. First, do the people West Virginia want elk? There was thunderous approval from those at a political function where Tomblin made the announcement, but there’s still a very mixed set of opinions among the general public. People complain about whitetail deer in their gardens and shrubs—elk would take damages to a new level. Insurance companies are paying big dollars from deer-car collision, but an elk-car collision may also be significantly higher in damage and claims.
Other questions remain about cervid disease. Already there are laws against importing cervids into West Virginia. Those would have to be amended. The Kentucky herd is the longest standing disease-free herd. Jezioro and the DNR want to get the elk from there when and if the time comes. However, Kentucky’s legislature has put a limit of 50-elk per year they’ll part with. Already Missouri and Wisconsin are on a waiting list. West Virginia is working closely with Kentucky to get on that waiting list as well.
"There are some hurdles, there are some questions," said Jezioro. "But the point is, if the public wants them, if the hunters want them, if the non-hunting public wants them the DNR will work with the governor to try and bring this to fruition. But it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight or next year."