Experts give WV high marks for elk program

September 18, 2018

Before elk could be brought to West Virginia, state wildlife officials had to find a place to put them. Today, more than 44,000 acres in southwestern West Virginia have been purchased and put in the public trust. Elk experts have called the land-acquisition effort "a rare occurrence" that showed "valuable forethought."

West Virginia’s elk-reintroduction effort is less than two years old, but it’s already impressing elk experts.

Representatives of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation give Mountain State wildlife officials high marks, particularly for making sure the public will be able to see and hunt the animals after they become firmly established.

Division of Natural Resources administrators knew that elk like to roam, and worried that they might roam onto lands where they’d never be seen and couldn’t be hunted. With that in mind, the DNR put together a plan to buy or lease tens of thousands of acres in Logan, Mingo and McDowell counties. To date, more than 44,000 acres have been acquired.

“West Virginia’s effort was a rare occurrence,” said Steven Dobey, the RMEF’s Eastern Conservation program manager. “They showed very valuable forethought when they proactively sought out land to better ensure the long-term success of the restoration.”

The land-acquisition program is already bearing fruit. Officials at the nearby Chief Logan Lodge and Conference Center recently started conducting “elk management tours” of the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, the epicenter of the 44,000 newly acquired acres.

Blake Henning, the RMEF’s Chief Conservation Officer, said it’s quite unusual for state wildlife agencies to attempt such a widespread private-to-public land conversion.

“In most other states where reintroductions have taken place, there were big chunks of public land to move the elk onto,” Henning explained. “I’m not sure we’ve seen the kind of work West Virginia did, to secure elk land and elk habitat, take place anywhere else in the country. They showed great vision to do that.”

Most of the lands already acquired were owned by mining companies, timber companies and investment firms. The DNR’s offer to buy and lease the properties came at an opportune time; the coal industry had suffered a severe downturn, and a moribund national economy convinced some of the investment companies that it was time to downsize their holdings.

Much of the mine-company land has been reclaimed after surface mining or mountaintop-removal mining took place. Dobey said the land, which to a casual observer might appear barren, is a surprisingly good place for elk to make a living.

“Reclaimed land is a great canvas for elk habitat,” he added. “With a little improvement, elk do just fine. We’ve seen it take place in Kentucky, and I’m sure we’ll see it in West Virginia, too.”

Kentucky wildlife officials raised a lot of eyebrows in the early 2000s, when they imported 1,500 elk and placed them on reclaimed mine sites. Those elk not only survived, they thrived. Today, an estimated 11,000 elk roam a 15-county area in the state’s southeastern region.

Several of those counties share a common border with West Virginia, and biologists expect elk from the Bluegrass State to cross the Tug Fork River and intermingle with the Mountain State’s growing herd. The same thing might eventually happen when elk stocked in Buchanan County, Virginia, begin roaming northward toward McDowell County, West Virginia.

“There will be interchange,” Dobey said. “Eventually, those areas of Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia will have herds and individual elk that move back and forth across borders.”

Elk that move into West Virginia should like what they find. With the RMEF’s financial assistance, DNR officials have launched habitat-improvement efforts on their newly acquired Wildlife Management Areas.

Multiflora rose, autumn olive and other invasive weeds are being eradicated by burning, mulching or bulldozing. Clovers and tender, warm-season grasses are being planted where nutrient-poor lespedeza once grew. Crews have dug watering holes for elk and other wildlife to use.

If DNR officials have their way, similar habitat projects will be undertaken at public areas throughout the state’s “elk management zone,” which includes all of Logan, Mingo, McDowell and Wyoming counties and the southern parts of Boone, Lincoln and Wayne.

Brian Satterfield, president of the West Virginia Chapter of the RMEF, said the organization’s members are delighted with the work the DNR has done so far.

“It took a long time for them to get things going, but once they started they moved really fast,” he added. ”[Elk project leader] Randy Kelley and others started working and talking and dealing, and they really put together a terrific package. They got the land, they got the elk to put onto the land, and they’re working the land to make sure it’s right for the elk.

“I was just down [at the Tomblin WMA]. The habitat work that’s being done down there for the elk is also benefiting deer, turkeys, bears and other animals. It’s really rewarding to see.”

Satterfield said the RMEF’s rank-and-file members have put in hundreds of hours’ worth of sweat equity helping DNR workers prepare the Tomblin site for the three elk releases that have taken place so far.

“We’ve had volunteers from all over the state working down there,” he said. “All I’ve had to do is make some phone calls, and 20 to 50 people have headed down there to help out.”

He said several members from the Beckley area, eager to see the fruits of their labors, plan to head for Chief Logan soon to take one of the elk-management tours.

“Our members are excited,” he said. “We recently had a banquet in Elkins, and when I told them how many elk we had on the ground, counting the newborn calves, the place went crazy. [Members] were cheering, clapping, really happy. It’s a testament to the good work the DNR and the Elk Foundation have been able to accomplish together.”

“West Virginia’s effort was a rare occurrence. They showed very valuable forethought when they proactively sought out land to better ensure the long-term success of the restoration.”

Steven Dobey

RMEF’s Eastern Conservation program manager

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