Here come the elk

LOGAN, W.Va. — At long last elk will soon roam the hills and hollows of West Virginia once again.  A new agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and the DNR will clear the way for elk to be trapped at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky and transferred to the southern coalfields of West Virginia.  It’s the first of what is expected to be several releases of elk back into the wild in West Virginia in the next few years.   This has been a long time coming.

According to the Division of Natural Resources the last official occurrence of a wild elk in West Virginia was in 1875 at the headwaters of the Tygart and Greenbrier Rivers. Their numbers were depleted through a combination of subsistence hunting, market hunting, and widespread timbering.   The first consideration of bringing them back into West Virginia came in 1972 when the DNR conducted the first elk reintroduction feasibility study.  The idea never developed much further at the time, but it was revived in 2005, fueled largely by the successful establishment of a population in eastern Kentucky in the late 1990’s.   Kentucky’s efforts proved elk could thrive and exist without too many problems in the rugged post-mining terrain.   The topography and condition of the lands in eastern Kentucky are nearly identical to southern West Virginia.  West Virginia’s program was furthered bolstered when neighboring Virginia stopped fighting the idea and instead embraced it and introduced their own elk herd in two counties bordering West Virginia.

Whether West Virginia introduced them or not, elk were coming. There were already reports of elk crossing the borders on both ends of the coalfields and Kentucky has managed to turn their elk herd into a lucrative, money making venture for the state and entrepreneurs in the economically depressed region. Therefore West Virginia decided to move forward after another feasibility study in 2005.  The project got its most significant boost with Governor Earl Ray Tomblin making the reintroduction a priority of his administration.  The timeline now calls for the elk to arrive at the end of the year or possibly after the first of 2017 depending on how a quarantine and disease test goes when they are trapped in Kentucky.  Ideally West Virginia would like to have gotten all of its elk from the Kentucky herd situated in Pike County near the West Virginia border.  Those elk are considered the most desirable for their tolerance of the Appalachian terrain and disease free status.  But the elk from the Commonwealth of Kentucky were not going to be available for a while, and West Virginia is ready to move now.

Reintroduction of a species doesn’t come without considerations.  First and foremost of those considerations will be how the locals view the idea.  The DNR wanted to be cautious, as they should, about introducing an animal which could wind up on somebody’s property when they didn’t want it.  However, numerous public meetings and surveys of residents indicated a huge level of support for the reintroduction in the West Virginia coalfields.   Residents at public meetings were not only vocally supportive, but passionate about the idea.  While Kentucky has seen a windfall financially, it remains to be seen if that will be the case for southern West Virginia, but many remain hopeful as the revenues from coal continue to struggle.

Certainly there are concerns about the chances of elk vs. car accidents.  It’s a subject which often comes up.   The state of Kentucky reports there are some incidents of such collisions, but the problems have been minimal since their reintroduction more than a decade ago.   Another concern is the possibility of crop damage from elk.  That’s virtually a non-issue since there is little to no farming which happens in the seven designated counties of the West Virginia Elk Zone.  There are worries, as always, about disease and potentially bringing such ailments into the state.  The DNR and U.S. Department of Agriculture are expected to conduct a thorough examination and have their eye out for any potential pitfalls.  Expect them to be as healthy as possible.

Many who read here often advocate for a reintroduction in another part of the state. The evidence of elk many years ago can still be found around West Virginia in our place names.  Elk Knob, Elk River, Elkview, Elk Springs and the list goes on of “elk” references in geographical locations all over the state.  The high mountains around Dolly Sods or Spruce Knob are often suggested as potential places which would be “perfect” for elk to roam.   But there are some serious problems with such an idea.   You might release elk at Dolly Sods to clicking cameras and widespread fanfare, but in a few weeks when the cameras are gone and the fanfare has died down, the elk will be down in the South Branch or Tygart Valley helping themselves to corn and hayfields.   Trust me when I tell you that wouldn’t sit well with West Virginia farmers in those areas.  The lure of those low lying farmlands would also increase the chances for the other concern, vehicle collisions.

Because of how elk behave in the Rockies, we have a misconception of them.  Many believe elk are instinctively migratory, but this isn’t necessarily the case.  There is no annual mass migration, they simply move until they find food.  In the Rockies, when the snow sets in for the winter all of the food is buried in deep snow, so they move to a place where they can get to it.   We don’t have that kind of snow here in the east, particularly in the central Appalachians encompassing eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, therefore the elk have been content to graze on the grasses planted on reclaimed strip mine sites bordered by hardwood forests.

Chances are there will be a few negatives associated with the reintroduction, it’s almost inevitable, but the positives will likely far outweigh them in the long run.  For better or worse, the decision has been made and the wheels are in motion for the once native elk to resume their spot amid the wildlife makeup of West Virginia.