HOLDEN — West Virginia’s elk herd has its own personal paparrazo, and his name is Mark Bias.
Every couple of months, he ventures deep into the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, in Logan and Mingo counties, to hunt the elusive animals — not with gun or bow, but with his camera.
Bias, a commercial photographer who grew up near Lesage, in Cabell County, never thought he’d have the opportunity to even see an elk in West Virginia, let alone photograph it.
“When I was growing up, if you even saw a deer track, it was a big deal,” he said. “If you actually saw a deer, it was really something. If you wanted to deer hunt, you went to Randolph or Pendleton counties.”
When Bias launched his commercial photography business in 1988, capturing images of wildlife wasn’t even on his radar screen.
“I did some motorsports, NASCAR,” he said. “I expanded into aerial and commercial photography around the year 2000, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been a frequent client. Part of one of his assignments, in Florida, included making photos of birds and animals near one of the corps’ projects.
“I ended up doing quite a bit of wildlife photography for the Corps, and when the [state Division of Natural Resources] reintroduced elk to West Virginia, I thought photographing them would be a neat thing to do,” he said.
He contacted Randy Kelley, the DNR’s elk project leader, and asked if he could visit the Tomblin WMA to take pictures.
“I first came out the September after the first elk stocking,” Bias recalled. “It was the first time I’d ever heard a bull elk bugle, and I think that’s pretty much what hooked me. I was able to get some photos then, and from then on I’ve tried to get back there at least every other month.”
He quickly learned how difficult it could be to get frame-filling shots of the wary, people-shy animals, even through a powerful telephoto lens.
“To get good shots, you have to get pretty close to them without spooking them,” he said. “I dress in full camouflage, and my camera lens and tripod are camouflaged, too.”
Bias locates the elk the same way a hunter would.
“I come out, go to a high point and just sit there, glassing the surrounding ridge tops and hillsides,” he said. “It’s kind of like finding a needle in a haystack. There are 90 to 100 elk on more than 30,000 acres. The elk aren’t in pens. They’re free-roaming, and they’re hard to get close to.”
After he locates a few animals, Bias goes to them and tries to set up in a place where the elk will pass nearby.
“Sometimes it takes miles of walking to get there,” he said.
They’re not easy miles. The terrain is rugged, with steep-sided, heavily forested hillsides. The hilltops, heavily surface-mined, are no bargain, either. Bias walks those grounds with a day pack on his back and a 23-pound camera-and-tripod rig slung over one shoulder. He expends a lot of energy for precious little shooting time.
“During most of the year, the elk don’t stay out much after first daylight,” he said. “They bed down during the day and chew their cud, just like cattle would do. They don’t become active again until a little before dark.
“I try to be in my chosen spot an hour before daylight. I shoot until the elk disappear, go home and rest during the day, and come back in the evening.”
Bias said he particularly enjoys photographing during the rut, or elk mating season, because the animals often remain active throughout the day. It’s the time of year when bull elk signal their location by bugling, and it’s also the time of year when the bulls are most likely to lock horns to establish a mating hierarchy.
Curiously, Bias doesn’t sell most of the elk images he makes.
“I’ve made them available to the DNR for free, and they use quite a few of them,” he said. “Logan County has used some for their advertisements, and I’ve provided some stuff for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.”
Bias also posts a lot of his photos to Facebook and Instagram. He said the images have helped raise his profile as a wildlife photographer.
“People are seeing them,” he said. “I get comments from people around the state who say they didn’t even know West Virginia had elk.
“I never thought I’d see elk on the West Virginia landscape in my lifetime. Now they’re here, and I’m making images of them I can show to my granddaughter and say, ‘Look here. Papaw was out taking pictures of these elk when all this began. Someday, you’ll be able to share these with your grandkids.’ ”