Winter health checks show W.Va. elk herd continues to grow

“Orange 15” the mother of the first elk born in West Virginia in over 140 years. Recaptured in 2022, she had another calf this past year and continues to add to the herd.

HOLDEN, W.Va. — Members of the Division of Natural Resource’s Elk Project team have been busy. Winter months are the time for checking the health of the state’s growing elk herd up close.

“We have 19 of the working collars we started with and eight new ones,” said Elk Project Leader Randy Kelly on a recent edition of West Virginia Outdoors.

So far, Kelly and his team have darted 15 calves from the past year–and ten were cows.

“So far the ratio has been great!” he laughed.

Females are essential to expanding the herd, so an unbalanced gender ratio leaning toward female is exactly what Kelly hopes for each spring.

There have been a few interesting developments with the 2022 monitoring program. Kelly and his crew recaptured “15 Orange” which was the cow who gave birth to the first elk in West Virginia in more than 150 years. The name is a reference to the color and number of her ear-tag. The cow is at least eight years old and was part of the original lot captured at the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area facility back in 2016 and transplanted in West Virginia.

“We recollared her and she had a calf with her, so she’s still adding to the population,” said Kelly.

The team also recaptured “Black #1” the first calf biologists were able to capture back in 2017. He sports a set of antlers and is now fitted with a new radio transmitter collar.

Members of the DNR’s Elk Project team pose with “Black #1” the first West Virginia born calf they were able to capture and fit with a collar back in 2017.

Overall herd health is strong according to Kelly. Elk are finding all of the food, water, and habitat they need largely on the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area. They aren’t venturing too far from the home range. One of the facts learned from neighboring Kentucky’s elk program more than two decades ago was Appalachian elk don’t roam far from their home range, except for young bulls. They’ll be nomadic for a certain period of the year, but generally will return.

“They tend to go off and live on their own for a while, but then they come back to the herd during the rut. We used to get reports of Kentucky elk coming into West Virginia, but they wouldn’t stay long. Now, we’re getting elk moving six or seven miles onto surface mines. Guys working there will call and report them, but then we’ll see them back with the herd when the rut starts,” Kelly explained.

So far, there’s no evidence of any West Virginia elk crossing the Tug Fork into Kentucky. There’s no need to move, they’re eating well and living large on the current range.

“There’s no way to weigh them, but we do check body fat and those kinds of things and we have what appear to be very healthy animals we’re dealing with. Movements are all fine and from an eyeball standpoint they all appear to be in very, very good shape,” he said.

The health checks will continue for a few more weeks before wrapping up. Kelly and his team try to have their work done before the first calves of the season begin to drop in the spring.

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