HOLDEN, W.Va. — A West Virginia native who now makes his home in Florida has been able to witness and document history in West Virginia’s elk reintroduction.
Mark Bias is a professional photographer by trade. He spends his day documenting construction sites and providing illustrations necessary for large scale building projects. However, when he’s not “on the clock” he still has the camera in hand.
“I used to hunt, but now I get more enjoyment out of the fact I can shoot something one time while hunting, but with the camera I can shoot it over and over again,” Bias said during a recent appearance on West Virginia Outdoors.
His “catch and release” style of wildlife photography has become an linchpin in the reintroduction of elk into West Virginia. Bias had captured what are arguably some of the most magnificent images of West Virginia’s elk since they returned to the landscape in 2016. The Division of Natural Resources has used many of his pictures in their promotion of the program.
Bias, who grew up in Lesage, West Virginia, uses his woodsman skills to stalk and pattern the West Virginia elk. However, he said that’s not really what’s been his ace in the hole.
“I’m just lucky,” he laughed. “Whenever you have about 90 elk on 20,000 acres, it’s like hunting sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t.”
Since the first elk arrived back in West Virginia in 141 years, Bias has been visiting the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan County to see what he can see. During his first visit, he was escorted by Elk Project Leader Randy Kelly who helped him get his bearings and to understand the program and the area. The first trip into the West Virginia elk zone was memorable and resulted in one of the most iconic pictures of the elk reintroduction.
“That was really the first elk I had ever been around and I had never heard one bugle except on TV. He said they’re off to the left, so I went around the hill and probably for a good hour was able to watch a bull chase off a couple of other bulls. I also got to photograph the first two calves born in West Virginia on that trip. After that I was hooked,” Bias said.
Since then, Bias has stayed in close contact with the area and the elk and every season spends time watching and taking pictures.
“I know certain areas where they kind of hang out, but then they move, so you have to do a lot of looking to find them again. But I’ve gotten to know them pretty well from their ear tags and know where certain ones like to hang out,” Bias said.
Typically he returned to West Virginia every other month to have a look, but Covid 19 put a lot of time between his last couple of visits. He was most recently in Logan County in August and it was the first time there since December. He admitted, it took a while to find them.
When you spend considerable time on the area, Bias will agree you’ll see a lot of wildlife.
“One day last fall I was watching a big bull elk with two cows and off to my right there was an 8 point and 10 point deer sparring. I had elk on once side and whitetail deer fighting each other on the other,” he said.
He’s captured images of several of the whitetail bucks which are one of the hallmarks of southern West Virginia wildlife. Even the recently reintroduced quail have caught his attention.
“That’s been really interesting to be out there really early in the morning and late in the evening and hear them call. That’s something I haven’t heard in years. I’ve seen a few of them, but I still haven’t had them hold still long enough for me to get a photo,” he said.
Bias spends his time in Florida shooting pictures in the Everglades, Lake Okeechobee, and the Florida coast. Eagles, alligator, and all manner of marsh land birds have made their way into his viewfinder, but perhaps his most treasured encounter came while doing some work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. During a flight along the coast last November in a helicopter they spotted a whale in the ocean. The pilot swooped in for a closer look. Bias was able to snap several quality shots of the behemoth which he considered a pretty special encounter. What he didn’t realize was just how special.
“It turns out it was a right whale and there are less than 400 of them in the world. That one had never been photographed. I put the picture on Instagram and the whale people got in touch with me. He hadn’t been seen again until last week. I got an e-mail telling me the whale I had photographed off Ormond Beach had been spotted last week in British Columbia,” he said.