W.Va. elk herd grows little by little

HOLDEN, W.Va. — The elk herd of southern West Virginia continues to grow. Since their reintroduction, numbers of West Virginia elk have continued to grow and those numbers this summer are increasing as well.

DNR biologists say so far they’ve been able to document eight new elk calves from 2020 in West Virginia like this one, but admit as the herd grows it’s a harder target all the time.

Randy Kelley, Elk Project Leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources says so far he’s been able to identify eight elk calves in and around the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan County. However, he admits it’s not easy news to confirm.

“The elk tend to hide them a lot more than a deer does a fawn. They start dropping them in May pretty much through the summer and it’s tough to see them sometimes. But so far, we’ve counted eight,” he said.

The nature of the elk to keep their offspring a little more secluded is not the only issue with getting an accurate count. Several years into the reintroduction effort and elk numbers are starting to get to a point where the DNR cannot keep track of all of them.

“We have some elk out there that were naturally born here and don’t have transmitters on them so we can’t keep track of where they are at a particular time. So we’re getting the point that we’re just having to estimate what we see,” he said.

In addition to the tracking collars which were originally placed on all of the originally stocked elk, Kelley uses ten cell phone trail cameras placed at areas of high traffic to keep an eye on some of the herd. Placed at various pinch points, he’s been able to confirm cow and calf sightings, but also a few fairly robust bulls which are continuing to help build the southern West Virginia stock.

“We’ve got some good bulls, one really nice one is about nine years old. I’ve gone some pictures which show just how fast he’s growing. The older they get, the better they get to some extent. He’s had plenty to eat,” Kelly explained.

The nine-year old bull which as become something of a celebrity on the trail camera has actually moved to a different area across U.S. Route 119 from where the original elk were stocked. Along with a few cows on that side of the highway, Kelly expected he would be a big part of that group which has separated from the rest.

“I suspect he’ll be a big part of building that herd,” he said.

The well endowed racks on the bulls and the strong and health calves being born are partly a credit to efforts to improve the nutrition of the herd. Since starting up the program, Kelley and others have worked with land holding companies and coal companies to encourage using a better quality grass seed as the cover when reclaiming old mine land property. Kelly said they’ve also made a concerted effort to improve the nutritional value of grasses on the wildlife management area as well. He said the effort is starting to pay dividends.

“We’ve got several areas including some like a Lexington Coal site where I gave them what is basically our ‘elk mix.’ They planted it back in 2016 and it really looked great. We’ve got several companies using the elk mixture and we’re using it too. We’re using machines to knock down the autumn olive and replacing it with that mix,” Kelley said.

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