WVA To Establish Elk Herd on Mining Land

By Bill Cochran, special to the Roanoke Times

West Virginia is one of the latest states to launch an elk restoration program patterned after a highly successful one in Kentucky and a budding one in Virginia that claims 150 to 200 animals, mostly in Buchanan County.

I asked Randy Kelley, elk project leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR), to address questions on the effort to restore this magnificent animal to the Mountain State:

Elk in Kentucky

Elk in Kentucky, a state that has a healthy elk herd./Kentucky Dept. Fish and Wildlife

Q. What is the location of the restoration project?

A. It is a 2,845-square-mile area in the southern coalfield area comprised of Logan, Mingo, McDowell and Wyoming counties in their entirety, as well as the southern half of Lincoln and Wayne counties and the western half of Boone County.

Q. Why was this area selected?

A. It was selected based on habitat and the social acceptance of an elk program. Mining activity in this region has created large areas of grass and early successional-stage habitats which have proven successful for elk in other eastern states. There is very little farming in the elk management area, which should limit conflicts.

Q. What kind of support have you been receiving?

A. An independent study as well as a DNR-led public inquiry have indicated strong support from the citizens of the region. The latest survey resulted in a 93 percent favorable finding.

Q. How many elk do you plan to release?

A. Our plan is to release 75 to 100 at each of two release sites over the next five years or so, as they become available from an acceptable source.

Q. When is the first release scheduled?

A. An exact date has not been set, but it should be around the 17th of December.

Q. West Virginia has been slower developing an elk management plan than surrounding states. Why is that?

A. Studies were completed in 2005; however, at about that time Chronic Wasting Disease was discovered in our eastern panhandle, which redirected the agency’s attention and resources. At that time, we decided that we would allow elk from Kentucky to move in and passively establish a herd, but we would not actively relocate animals.

Q. How many years before you will have a hunting season?

A. This is an unknown. It will depend on our source of animals and reproductive success. The best guess would be five to 10 years.

Q. Where do you plan to obtain elk for release?

A. We have signed a memorandum of understanding with Land Between the Lakes in Western Kentucky to provide us 20 elk which will be captured later this month.

Q. Will there be wildlife watching opportunities in the future?

A. We are actively planning for this type of opportunity. Since early 2015, the agency has been involved in land negotiations of over 44,000 acres in order to make more land available to the public. This includes the largest single purchase of land for wildlife management — 32,000 acres — ever made in our state.