On December 19, 2016 elk made their return to West Virginia for the first time in over 140 years when 24 elk were released at the newly established Tomblin Wildlife Management area located in Logan County. Their reintroduction was made possible when the legislation in 2015 authorized the Division of Natural Resources to begin an active elk restoration plan. The first phase of the project was to find enough suitable land for the elk management area to sustain an elk population.
The southern coalfields in Logan, Lincoln, and Mingo counties contain several reclaimed strip mines with open areas that elk prefer and why the WVDNR chose this particular location. In a press release the WVDNR states that “Through a partnership with The Conservation Fund, more than 32,000 acres of publicly accessible land has been acquired for wildlife management and wildlife recreation. The DNR also recently acquired an additional 10,000 acres under lease agreements. In total, the DNR now manages more than 42,000 acres of land within an 11-mile radius of the initial elk release site.”
The loud bugles of the Eastern species of elk use to be heard in the high country of West Virginia in the early 1800’s but they are now extinct. The existence of the large animals is evident all across the state with places named Elk Garden, Elk Lick, Elk Mountain, and even the Elk River.
The Shawnee tribe of Indians called the Elk River Tis-chil-waugh which stands for “plenty fat elk”. The last known elk was reported in this same area around Webster Springs in 1875. After that the elk species was nonexistent until recently.
According to the Elk Management Plan it is reported that in 1913 fifty elk were obtained from Yellowstone National Park and transferred into an enclosure near the Minnehaha Springs area of Pocahontas County. From here they were released into the wild but in the end it proved to be an unsuccessful attempt at trying to reestablish elk back into the state.
In recent years restoration efforts have taken place in Arkansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wisconsin. One of the main reasons West Virginia and our neighbors in Virginia had to adopt an Elk Management Plan is due to Kentucky’s successful elk stocking program.
Kentucky began releasing elk into the wild in December 1997 and continued until the winter of 2002. Over those years, 1,550 elk were released at 8 different sites in a 16 county restoration zone. It should be noted that these are Rocky Mountain elk species and not the eastern species of elk that once roamed these hills and hollows many years ago.
Kentucky has since stopped stocking elk as they reached their target goal of 7,400 elk in 2008, which was 11 years ahead of schedule. This is due to the fact that studies indicate a 90% breeding success and a 92% calf survival rate in the Bluegrass state. Kentucky now issues approximately 1,000 hunting permits each year to help maintain the herd at the 7,400 animal target level. As of now, Kentucky boasts the largest free ranging wild elk herd east of Montana with a population estimated at over 10,000.
The original 24 elk that started West Virginia’s herd came from Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.
The herd will gain population when 58 more elk make their way to the mountain state from Arizona. On January 24 and 25 WVDNR personnel along with Arizona Game and Fish Department staff captured 60 elk but unfortunately 2 died 2 days later.
The elk were caught with nets shot out of a helicopter. There’s a video of the process on the internet that is pretty cool to watch. The Arizona elk have mandatory 30-day quarantine before being shipped here by a truck. An additional 17 elk will come from Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area as an agreement was made to obtain more elk from there to add to the WVDNR’s elk restoration plan.
The population goal for West Virginia’s Elk Management Area will be 1 elk per square mile of elk range. This will be reevaluated every 5 years. As soon as the elk population reaches the target animal goal, hunting opportunities will be considered. Until then, the elk will retain a “protected status” throughout the state.
With the new residents arriving soon, West Virginia will have around 100 elk roaming in our southern mountains. Once the cows start giving birth the population will continue to grow. It’s exciting to see a once native species return back to the place we call home.
The WVDNR’s Elk Management plan can be found at http://www.wvdnr.gov/Publications/Draft_Elk_Plan.pdf