Apparently West Virginians aren’t the only ones who like to see elk. Visitors from eight other states traveled to the Mountain State this fall to take part in Chief Logan State Park’s “elk management tours.”
“In all, we had 227 people go out with us on 20 tours,” said Lauren Cole, the park’s naturalist and tour leader. “Most of them were from West Virginia, but we also had some from Arizona, Florida, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin and Virginia.”
The tours began on Sept. 19 and ended on Oct. 20. All of them sold out within days of being announced.
Division of Natural Resources officials schedule the tours to coincide with the elk mating season, when the animals tend to be more active and more easily seen. It’s also a time when they are vocal, with the bulls “bugling” challenges to one another.
Cole said the timing has worked out nicely for tour participants, who saw elk on all 20 outings last year and on 19 of 20 this year.
“Some of the viewing was from quite a distance, but I’d estimate that we averaged seeing four to five elk per outing,” she added.
“We also got to hear quite a bit of bugling. One evening, we heard so many bugles I stopped counting them. It’s great to see the elk, but when you also hear a bugle echoing over the West Virginia hills, it becomes an amazing experience.”
Cole attributed this fall’s lone “goose-egg” trip to a group of hunters who were pursuing raccoons with dogs.
“The dogs had lighted collars, so we could see what was going on,” she said. “But the [Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, where the elk are located] is open to public hunting for everything except elk, so you’re going to get that from time to time.”
In addition to seeing elk, Cole said visitors also saw lots of deer and turkeys, rabbits and even a black bear.
“Some of the buck [deer] were fighting one another, locking antlers and shoving each other around,” she said. “People really enjoyed seeing that.”
The Tomblin WMA sits on more than 32,000 acres of reclaimed surface-mine land, and the rolling, grassy hilltops created during the reclamation process make for near-ideal elk habitat. In their usual habitat out west, elk bulls average about 750 pounds, cows 500. In the east, where forage is better and winters are milder, bulls can weigh up to 1,100 pounds — roughly the same as a horse.
“People who had never seen elk before were surprised at how big they are,” Cole said. “They were also really surprised at how pretty the scenery is up there on the mountaintop.”
They also received surprises from a couple of unexpected sources.
“One time, we returned to the van and found fresh bear [droppings],” Cole added. “Another evening, we decided to stay a little after dark to see if we could hear another elk bugling, and we saw some shooting stars, probably part of the Epsilon Perseid meteor shower.”
DNR director Steve McDaniel wants even more visitors to have similar experiences.
“To bring in more visitors, though, we need a bigger van,” he said. “Our current van can only accommodate 12 at a time. I’d like to get one with room for 24. It’s a big investment, probably $100,000 or more, but we’re looking seriously at it. The elk tours are popular, and we want more people to experience them.”