West Virginia’s elk herd grew a little larger in June when several pregnant cows gave birth to calves.
State wildlife officials aren’t yet certain how many calves were born, but say they should have a more accurate count by summer’s end.
“The only calves we’re counting right now are the ones whose pictures we got on game cameras,” said Randy Kelley, elk project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources. “So far we have six different calves confirmed, and we have no doubt there are more out there.”
Kelley said there are several reasons biologists can’t be certain of an exact number. The primary reason is that elk cows tend to keep their newborn calves hidden for several weeks.
“They hide their calves a lot longer than white-tailed deer hide their fawns,” he explained. “Sometimes we’ll see a cow two or three days in a row [after the early-June calving season] and assume she didn’t have a calf, and then she’ll show up a couple of weeks later with one at her side.”
Kelley and his fellow biologists can pretty easily determine when the herd’s radio-collared cows are about to give birth by monitoring the animals’ movements. The collars transmit each elk’s position to an overhead satellite, which transmits the data to the agency’s computers.
“When the cows are about ready to calve, they move away from the rest of the herd,” Kelley said. “Those are the animals we keep a really close eye on.”
But even when biologists know where a cow is, they can’t be sure she’s borne a calf until they see for themselves — either by direct observation, or by capturing the calf’s image on one of several trail cameras scattered across the 32,000-acre Tomblin Wildlife Management Area.
Neither observation method is easy. Thick undergrowth blankets the area’s reclaimed surface-mine lands, hiding all but the largest animals.
“With the understory the way it is, a cow can hide a calf almost anywhere,” Kelley said. “Until the calves get some size on them, we’ll have a tough time making sure they’re there.”
DNR workers will spend the next few weeks scanning the area with binoculars and spotting scopes, looking for calves that didn’t show up on game cameras. Kelley also expects to discover a few calves that were completely off the DNR’s radar.
“Not all the cows have radio collars,” he explained. “We have no idea where those animals are, and we won’t know if they’ve had calves until we lay eyes on them.”
West Virginia’s elk came from two sources — Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes Elk and Bison Prairie, and the state of Arizona. Kelley said the Arizona elk appear to have delivered their calves a bit earlier than the Kentucky elk.
“That’s just a general observation,” he said. “We aren’t sure why. I’ll have to dive into the literature to see if anything has been written about that.”
Not all the news from the elk-calving season has been good. Kelley said two cows died during or shortly after the birthing process.
“One appeared to have breached,” he continued. “The other seems to have died from an infection, and her calf died too.”
So far Kelley and his crew have limited their observations to the Tomblin property, but that will change.
“We have some elk on another piece of land that adjoins the WMA,” he said. “We know from the [satellite] telemetry that they’re over there. We need to go look at them, but it’s an active mining site and we have to get the landowner’s permission first.”
Kelley doubts if he and his assistants will ever be 100 percent certain how many calves were born this year, but they “should have a pretty close idea.”
“One thing’s for sure,” he said. “We’ve had elk on the property since December 2016, and we have more elk calves on the ground now than we’ve ever had. Overall, I think we’re having a pretty decent [calving] season.”