Deal secures land for WV elk habitat in Logan, Mingo, Lincoln counties

Photo courtesy Dave Baker, Kentucky DF&W
Just as elk adapted readily to the surface-mined slopes of eastern Kentucky’s mountains, West Virginia officials expect them to adapt to more than 32,000 acres of timberland and reclaimed mine lands recently acquired for permanent public use in southwestern West Virginia.

The deal is done.

West Virginia officially has a place for its elk to roam. Officials from The Conservation Fund and the state Division of Natural Resources today announced a deal that will secure 32,396 acres of forestland for permanent public use, primarily for elk hunting and elk watching.

The land lies at the epicenter of the DNR’s elk restoration zone, and much of it is reclaimed surface-mine property. Because elk generally prefer meadows and savannas to deep forests, agency officials consider the grassy mountaintops to be prime habitat.

All of the involved lands are located in Logan, Mingo and Lincoln counties. In addition to several new tracts, the purchase also places under permanent DNR ownership more than 10,000 acres of formerly leased lands at the agency’s Big Ugly and Laurel Lake wildlife management areas.

The deal came about due to some unique cooperation between the public and private sectors. The Conservation Fund, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit organization, made the purchase through its Working Forest Fund with support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

Conservation Fund officials say they will “sustainably manage” the extensive tracts as working forestland. The DNR will purchase the land in phases, using money from the state’s share of federal excise taxes on hunting equipment as well as a $250,000 grant from Walmart’s Acres for America program and a $250,000 grant from the Knobloch Family Foundation.

Joe Hankins, The Conservation Fund’s vice-president, called the deal “an investment in the economic development and future vitality of the state.”

“We’re proud to be a partner with the DNR in this effort to conserve an important and promising landscape, create new opportunities on land that once supported the state through its resources, and redefine conservation to provide multiple tangible economic and environmental benefits for local communities. This is a win-win proposition for all West Virginians.”

Not surprisingly, West Virginia officials also heaped praise on the agreement.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called it “a wonderful new opportunity for outdoor recreation that both our residents and visitors can enjoy.” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin said the deal would “benefit our southern region by bringing substantial economic growth through tourism and new hunting and outdoor recreation opportunities.”

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito predicted that the project “will allow our state’s natural beauty to fuel economic growth through tourism and other recreational opportunities.”

U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, whose district the deal most directly affects, said, “Tourism, hunting and logging are all important parts of our state’s economy, and these protected acres will provide opportunities for all of these revenue-generating activities.”

The first of the actual land transfers to the DNR are scheduled to take place in the spring of 2016. Agency director Bob Fala called the deal “the largest single conservation acquisition in state history.”

State officials are still in the midst of trying to find a source for the elk to be stocked in southern West Virginia. The most likely state, Kentucky, had a prior arrangement to ship 150 animals to Wisconsin within the next three to five years.

Paul Johansen, the DNR’s chief of wildlife resources, said agency biologists are contacting other states, but added that no agreements have been made so far.

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1231, or follow him on Twitter at @GazMailOutdoors

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