Elk disappeared from West Virginia’s woods more than 100 years ago, but they’re on the way back.
Studying a map of West Virginia, you soon begin to notice a pattern. There’s an Elk Creek that flows through Clarksburg, and another Elk Creek between Man and Gilbert in Mingo County. There’s an Elk Mountain in Webster County and, not too far away, a place near Green Bank called Elk Lick Run.
The Elk River flows from the Allegheny Mountains in Pocahontas County to Charleston, where it empties into the Kanawha. Mineral County is home to the town of Elk Garden. Mingo County has Elkhorn and, in Summers County, there’s a community called Elk Knob.
Although the animal is now mostly associated with the American West, elk were once a very common sight all across the Mountain State. That’s obviously not the case anymore. Randy Kelley, a biologist with the state Division of Natural Resources, figures he has seen more elk in West Virginia than anyone alive today—and that’s not very many.
In 2012 DNR put Kelley in charge of a program to track elk in the state. The agency placed salt blocks at 50 sites in southern West Virginia with suitable habitats for elk, setting up a trail camera at each site. It was three years before any of the cameras got a photo of an elk. In summer 2014, a camera in Mingo County caught a glimpse of a small bull. “He didn’t stay. He just came over (from Kentucky or Virginia) and visited, I guess,” Kelley says.
There are other confirmed elk sightings in the southern part of the state—Kelley has personally seen five different bulls—but the agency does not have enough data to guess how many of the beasts are roaming the woods. “They’re very few and far between. We have no estimate but the numbers would be very low, that’s for sure.”
This isn’t surprising. West Virginia hasn’t had a self-sustaining elk population in nearly 150 years. More than 10 million elk roamed North America before the Europeans arrived, but by the 1870s overhunting and habitat destruction had wiped out nearly every elk herd on the United States’ Eastern seaboard. Only about one million elk remain in North America now, according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a Montana-based conservation group.
The species is slowly rebounding, however. Some states, including our neighbors in Kentucky and Virginia, have launched reintroduction programs to bring the animals back to their woods. For years West Virginia opted for a passive approach to elk reintroduction—wildlife officials waited for elk to eventually wander across our borders and find hollows to call home. It didn’t work. “Elk are apparently not a very good pioneering species. They find what they want and stick close,” Kelley says.
So after years of lobbying by DNR and sportsmen, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill in March creating the state’s first active elk restoration program. The agency hasn’t wasted any time getting started. In September, DNR director Bob Fala announced the state’s first elk relocation sites, a 4,300-acre plot in Logan County and a 6,700-acre tract in McDowell, and appointed Kelley as DNR’s first full-time elk biologist.
Now the state just has to find some elk. The animals will likely come from Kentucky, which began its own reintroduction program in the late 1990s. The project has been so successful Kentucky wildlife officials now give away animals to help other states establish their own herds. Wyoming has first dibs on this year’s batch of trapped elk, although there is a slight possibility Kentucky might send some animals to West Virginia, too. That’s what happened when Missouri and Virginia asked for elk at the same time. If Kentucky decides to go this route again, West Virginia could release its first elk into the wild by spring 2016.
Officials hope West Virginians will eventually be able to hunt the elk, although it will take several years before the herd is large enough. The animals will likely begin drawing tourists long before the state begins issuing hunting permits, however. “There’s been some real magic that happens once the elk show up,” says Tom Toman, director of science and planning for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Toman saw souvenir shops spring up with elk-themed T-shirts and coffee cups after Pennsylvania brought its herd back. Other new businesses popped up, too, offering horseback rides through elk country and helicopter spotting tours. A local diner even rebranded itself as “Home of the Bugle Burger.”
But it’s more than just an economic development strategy. Wildlife officials see the elk reintroduction as a way to bring history back to life. Fala still remembers the first time he heard an elk bugle. “They just give you the heebie jeebies.” He had moved to Wyoming after graduating from Penn State and was out deer hunting. While out in the woods he heard a high-pitched, otherworldly shriek. “At the National Elk Refuge, they take you on horse-drawn sled rides through the herds of hundreds during the winter months. It’s amazing how vocal the elk are,” he says. “Pretty chilling.”
The Civil War had barely ended when the last wild elk disappeared from West Virginia’s woods. But soon—and very soon, if DNR officials have their way—the call of these ancient beasts will again echo in the hills of West Virginia.
Written by Zach Harold