It appears that West Virginians will get to see elk make their return to the mountain state for the first time since the late 1800’s. Over 32,000 acres of land has been purchased in Logan, Lincoln, and Mingo counties for the elk restoration project. In a recent press release from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR), “The Conservation Fund announced its purchase of 32,396 acres of working forestland in southern West Virginia that will eventually create the state’s largest, conserved block of prime habitat for elk restoration.
The Conservation Fund purchased the property through its Working Forest Fund®, with generous support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation. Under The Conservation Fund’s ownership, the property will be sustainably managed as working forestland. Over the next few years, the Fund will convey the land to the DNR in phases, starting in the spring of 2016. These lands will provide public, wildlife-associated recreation, and they will be managed for a variety of conservation benefits, including elk restoration.”
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, 1550 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. 469 elk were harvested during the 2014-15 hunting season. As of now, Kentucky boasts the largest free ranging wild elk herd east of Montana with a population estimated at over 10,000.
West Virginia is on the waiting list to receive Kentucky elk but there are other states on that list as well. Hopefully in the years to come West Virginia can transfer a few of those elk into the newly established elk restoration area. The elk population in Kentucky is booming and the same habitat is found in the southern coalfields of West Virginia.
Elk are grazers and like open spaces which are found in these locations due to mountain top removal operations. It is believed that since deer are considered more browsers than grazers that the two can coexist. This will have to be studied more in the years to come as the elk population grows.
The population goal for the 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.
So if you have been dreaming of bugling elk in the West Virginia mountains once again, it looks like those dreams will come true. And not only may you hear them in the years to come, at some point, you may be able to hunt the majestic animals right here at home. We have the land, now all we need is the elk.