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WV welcomes elk back to its hills

JOHN McCOY | Gazette-Mail photos
The first elk reintroduced to West Virginia have been living in a 3-acre pen at the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, in Logan County. The 24-animal herd is split evenly between bulls and cows. The bulls’ antlers were removed for safety before the animals were trucked in from Western Kentucky.
A crowd estimated at more than 200 people traveled to the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area on Monday to see the elk and to hear a string of dignitaries welcome the animals to their new home.

HOLDEN, W.Va. — Elk have returned to West Virginia’s mountains.

Monday afternoon on a remote surface-mine site in Logan County, government and wildlife officials welcomed home the species that had been absent from the state since 1875. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a longtime Logan-area resident, called the reintroduction effort “historic.”

“This is a historic day,” he said. “It has taken several years and all kinds of people to bring this together. This is the first of several releases designed to create a self-sustaining elk population in Southern West Virginia.”

The elk came to the Mountain State through a reintroduction project spearheaded by the state Division of Natural Resources and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. In early November, DNR personnel trapped the first herd of 24 animals at the U.S. Forest Service’s Land Between the Lakes Elk and Bison Prairie, in Western Kentucky and Tennessee. After the animals were tested and declared disease-free, they were trucked to the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, a partially reclaimed surface-mine site near Holden.

A crowd, estimated at more than 200, huddled together on the cold, damp mountaintop Monday to see the elk and hear a stream of dignitaries welcome the animals to West Virginia.

“These elk haven’t been seen in West Virginia for more than 140 years,” said U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va. “I think people will be amazed at what they do for the area, from the tourists who come to see them to the hunters who come to hunt them.”

State wildlife officials have spent an estimated $250,000 on the reintroduction effort. Most of the seed money came from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a Montana-based conservation group dedicated to the species.

“In the words of our president, David Allen, ‘Nothing is more sacred than reintroducing a species to its natural habitat,’ ” said Bill Carman, the Elk Foundation’s regional director.

In addition to the Elk Foundation’s contributions, several million dollars more have been spent to acquire large, unbroken tracts of public land for the elk to roam on.

Much of that land — more than 32,000 acres of timberland and former surface-mine property — was acquired in a deal brokered through The Conservation Fund, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit organization. Conservation Fund officials made the purchase through their Working Forest Fund, with support from the Richard King Mellon Foundation.

The DNR will buy 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 Wal-Mart’s Acres for America program and a $250,000 grant from the Knobloch Family Foundation.

“The Conservation Fund is proud to partner with [the DNR] in establishing a vast protected landscape of sustainably managed land,” said Joe Hankins, the organization’s vice president. “It is redefining conservation in West Virginia to provide multiple tangible economic and environmental benefits to local communities.”

DNR officials hope the fledgling herd will expand next spring when several of the female elk give birth to calves. Eventually, the DNR envisions an elk population spread throughout four counties and parts of three others — Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Wyoming, southern Boone, southern Lincoln and southern Wayne.

To accomplish that within the agency’s projected 10-year time frame, additional stockings will be necessary. DNR officials had hoped to get those from nearby Eastern Kentucky, where the elk population totals approximately 10,000. Kentucky officials, citing a commitment to Wisconsin to supply elk for reintroduction there, denied West Virginia’s request.

To get the stocking program started, West Virginia officials turned to the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the elk and bison population at Land Between the Lakes. Monday’s stocking reportedly will be the only one that uses elk from that source.

With approximately two years left before Kentucky fulfills its commitment to Wisconsin, DNR administrators might be hard-pressed to find another disease-free population and a state willing to part with some of its herd. DNR Director Bob Fala said agency personnel have already put out feelers to other states’ wildlife agencies.

“We’re looking for more sources,” he said. “We want to get as many [elk] as we can, as quickly as we can. We hope to get hunting started within five to 10 years, even if we’re only drawing for a few limited bull tags. How quickly we accomplish that will be contingent on how many we can get, and how fast. We’ve got a start, and we’re not going to give up on it.”

Even if the population doesn’t quickly grow large enough to hunt, DNR and tourism officials are hoping it will attract visitors who simply hope to see the 500- to 1,000-pound animals in the wild.

“I don’t know if everyone at street level appreciates how much tourism they’re going to bring,” Fala said. “I just went up to Pennsylvania to see the visitor center the state has put in so people can observe the elk there. On a Tuesday evening, scores of people and vehicles were at the viewing stations. Kentucky will be building a visitor center. We want to get around to something like that, eventually. In the meantime, we’ve already put in applications for grants to develop parking areas and viewing platforms.”

Kenny Wilson, a member of the state Natural Resources Commission and a Logan County resident, called the elk project “the most exciting thing the DNR has ever done.”

“I think the people [in southwestern West Virginia] will really embrace them,” he said. “I’m not sure they’re even all that eager about hunting them; they’re just happy the elk are here. It’s a monumental event when you bring something back that’s been extinct [in the state] since 1875. A lot of people have put in a lot of time and effort to bring them in.”

DNR officials said the elk would be kept in a 3-acre holding pen for a few days until they adjust to their new surroundings. After that, they’ll be released to roam wherever they want.

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

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