West Virginia’s elk herd grew by 17% this summer.
Biologists believe 15 new calves were born in June and July, and their addition brings the total number of elk into the 80-to-90 range.
“So far we’ve been able to observe 13 different calves, and it’s likely there are two or three more we haven’t yet seen, so our estimate is 15,” said Randy Kelley, elk project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources.
Kelley would like to know the exact number, but chances are he never will. Elk cows wander away from their herds when they’re about to give birth, and they keep their newborn calves hidden.
The Tomblin WMA, where the elk are located, encompasses more than 32,000 acres of rugged terrain. Finding a calf would be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, but Kelley has technology on his side.
Most of the elk wear radio collars that upload the transmitter’s exact Global Positioning System coordinates to a satellite every 15 minutes. Kelley needs only to glance at a map on his computer screen to know which of the collared cows have detached themselves from their herds.
Armed with that knowledge, he heads for he cows’ last transmitted location and places game cameras near watering holes, mineral licks and other areas where the cow is most likely to bring her calf.
So far, Kelley has captured the images, or has seen in person, a total of 13 calves. He suspects there are at least a couple more, for several reasons.
First, there are two isolated cows he hasn’t yet been able to observe. Second, there are a couple of cows whose transmitters have malfunctioned or have fallen off.
“Some of those collars have been out there since we turned the elk loose [in 2016 and 2018],” Kelley said. “Their performance can get spotty when they get this old, so we don’t have an exact picture of what’s going on.”
This year’s calf drop brings the West Virginia herd’s size back up to where it was before several animals succumbed to meningeal worms, parasites carried by white-tailed deer. The worms, commonly referred to as “brainworms,” don’t harm deer, but they’re deadly to elk.
“We got hit pretty hard by brainworm last year, but this year conditions are much better,” Kelley said. “The weather has been drier, and the elk are in much better shape physically than they were last year.”
Brainworm seemed particularly rough on the elk West Virginia imported from Arizona in 2018. Those animals were kept in a pen in Arizona for 30 days, shipped to the Mountain State, and then held for 90 days more before they were released.
DNR officials wanted to release the animals as soon as they arrived, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture ordered the additional 90-day quarantine. Several animals died before release, and the stress of their protracted captivity left all of the animals in poorer physical condition than they otherwise would have been.
By this year, the elk had fully adapted to their new habitat and had put on weight.
“We’re way ahead of where we were last year,” Kelley said. “Having higher bodyweights seems to help the elk resist brainworm. This time last year, they’d been hit pretty hard. They’re better off now, and we think they’ll fare considerably better.”
The animals’ improved physical condition bodes well for next year’s calving season. The better health cows are in, the more likely they are to successfully reproduce, Kelley said. The elk rut, or mating season, will begin sometime in mid-September and will culminate in another calf drop late next spring.
Kelley said DNR officials hope to expand the herd still further with another stocking, but a source for more animals has yet to be identified.