I saw a photo recently that fired my imagination.
It showed two elk bulls in a green Logan County landscape, heads low, antlers locked in mating-season combat.
The notion that two such magnificent animals now roam my home county got me thinking. Never in my wildest youthful dreams could I have conceived that elk would be seen again in the Mountain State, let alone in the Southern Coalfields, let alone on land that had been surface-mined.
It happened, though, and I feel privileged to have watched it as it did.
At times, events unfolded with blinding speed. At other times, a particularly slow-moving turtle could have outpaced them.
When the idea of an elk-restoration project first came up, Division of Natural Resources officials seemed hesitant. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation spent money on a study to figure out where the animals should go and how much the public wanted them.
The best habitat was in the Monongahela National Forest, but farmers located in and near the forest didn’t want elk around. The habitat in the Southern Coalfields wasn’t quite as good, but the people there were overwhelmingly in favor of a reintroduction effort.
Even with the study in hand, the DNR moved slowly. Agency biologists devised a plan for what they called a “passive” elk reintroduction.
They designated all or parts of seven southwestern counties — Logan, McDowell, Mingo, Wyoming, Boone, Lincoln and Wayne — as an “elk management zone,” where elk herds would be allowed to roam freely once established.
Problem is, that plan counted on elk from Kentucky and Virginia wandering across the border into the Mountain State and deciding to set up housekeeping.
That “go-slow” approach ended when then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin promised to bring elk to the Southern Coalfields.
Within two years, DNR officials acquired tens of thousands of acres of land in Logan, Mingo and McDowell counties for the elk to live on. In December 2016, they kick-started the reintroduction with 24 elk imported from Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes Elk and Bison Prairie.
Gov. Jim Justice’s administration kept their foot on the accelerator. In 2018, they imported 56 elk from Arizona and 15 more from Land Between the Lakes. Bureaucratic meddling by the U.S. Department of Agriculture caused 10 of the Arizona elk to die in captivity, and more died later from the ordeal of being held in the USDA-ordered quarantine for 90 days more than anticipated.
The pace slowed after 2018.
Many states, concerned about chronic wasting disease, have stopped exporting elk. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the U.S. Forest Service to close temporarily its Land Between the Lakes facility.
DNR officials say they would like to import more elk, but they haven’t found a source yet. The bulls and cows in West Virginia’s nascent herd are doing their part; this year, they produced at least 15 calves.
Unfortunately, they lost about that many adult elk due to natural mortality. The bottom line? The state’s elk-reintroduction program is maintaining its herd size, but only just.
There may come a day when hundreds, or even thousands of elk spread roam the southwestern corner of West Virginia. With current numbers hovering in the high 80s or low 90s, such a day seems depressingly far away.