Time will tell on the W.Va. elk herd

HOLDEN, W.Va. — Like about 500 others I stood in muddy boots atop a reclaimed mountaintop mining site in Logan County this week and tried to manipulate the zoom lens of my less than qualified camera to capture a picture of elk standing 600 yards away in a pen.   By now, I suspect the gates of that pen have been opened and those 24 animals which were trucked into the West Virginia coalfields from western Kentucky are wandering around their new home finding all the amenities; watering holes, oak stands, and ridges to catch a break from the wind.

I could be cynical about the idea of reintroducing elk into the state.  But there are enough cynics toward all projects.  I’ve heard from a number of you who have raised all kinds of questions and looked for every kind of problem in this project.

Some took shots at all of the political leaders who gathered to make grand speeches and pat one another on the back during the event.   Well, that sort of goes with the territory.  As a reporter, I’ve covered many a dog and pony show over the years.   They typically follow some kind of positive development.  But in this case, if you’re one who liked the idea of elk reintroduction you need to give a lot of credit to Governor Earl Ray Tomblin.  Tomblin made the elk reintroduction in his native Logan County a priority more than a year ago.  He was spurred toward the goal when he learned of Kentucky’s success with the program and after hearing a lot of support for the idea from many of his Logan County neighbors.

Others believe southern West Virginia was a poor choice as the location.  I’ve written about this before, but will try to explain again, the southern coalfields of West Virginia were the ONLY choice.   I would agree seeing a majestic bull elk bugling off of Bear Rocks in the Dolly Sods is a postcard photo op.  However, 24 hours after that picture is snapped the same bull elk would be in the middle of some farmer’s cornfield in the South Branch Valley.  If you think a deer or bear cause crop damage–an elk is that on steroids.   Elk follow the food and when there are acres of crops, that becomes their buffet.   Plus in that part of the state there has been a constant and growing problem with chronic wasting disease and elk are susceptible.   The southern coalfields have no farming and so far (fingers crossed) no cases of CWD.

Just like an elk can wreak havoc on a cornfield they would also do a number on a car if you happen to hit one.  Many worry that will soon be an issue.  Officials at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation tell me that’s not as large a concern as many like to believe.   According to records, incidents of car vs. elk collisions in Kentucky have been minimal.  Bill Carman with RMEF tells me elk and deer habits are different and unlike deer, elk are likely to stay in a much more concentrated area without a lot of movement as long as there is adequate food.  The only major highway in southern West Virginia is U.S. Route 119.   Will some be hit by cars? Probably.  Will it be a constant highway hazard?  Unlikely.

I’ve gotten emails and other messages which suggest the elk are going to be locked up on private land and unavailable to hunters.  This was a concern of the Division of Natural Resources which was considered well ahead of the project.   Millions of dollars have been spent to acquire public land.  The Tomblin Wildlife Management Area and the Big South Wildlife Management area is public land, bought and paid for by our hunting and fishing license dollars.  The area covers more than 30,000 acres.  More land acquisition is also in negotiation to expand those lands.   It’s true much of the land in southern West Virginia is privately owned by land holding companies and coal companies.  Hopefully land-locked elk won’t become the case.  We shall see.

Can the region’s legacy of poaching be overcome?   A lot of you have been critical of the area residents and the unfortunate reputation which exists for illegal hunting.  I’ve attended the public meetings on the elk project.  I’ve had numerous calls to my radio show and I’ve spoken personally to a lot of people in that part of the state about this.  There is overwhelming support for the idea of the reintroduction of elk there.  I don’t think the public will tolerate the selfish act of poaching.  All of the elk are tagged, collared, and implanted with chips to track their every move.  If somebody is crazy enough to kill one illegally, they better hope the Natural Resources Police catch them first.

Whether this project is a success remains to be seen.  However, the track record of Kentucky is a good one.  The Bluegrass state has reaped great benefits and revenue from its elk herd.  Amazingly those benefits aren’t just from elk hunting, which is limited to lottery drawn permits.   Kentucky has a reportedly thriving business of people who come to the state wanting to just SEE an elk.   Creating an elk herd in West Virginia, officials hope to draw some of those tourists here.  Those visitors may also use the Hatfield-McCoy Trail and possibly spur other economic growth.  Most will agree the state needs to diversify its economy beyond coal.  Elk certainly aren’t the final answer, but it’s a start in an area that has only known coal as an economic base for more than 100 years.

So yes, there are pros and cons to every wildlife project.  Reintroduction of a species isn’t always perfect and there could be pitfalls.  But I give credit to the DNR’s Wildlife Staff, many of whom have worked tirelessly to get this off the ground without a whole lot of credit for their work.  It will be interesting to see how it evolves and whether the elk truly meet the expectations.   But there is widespread support from those who live in the coalfields.  Those two dozen elk milling around the holding pen in Logan County hold a lot of hope for the future among those who live in the region.