This is an open letter to Earl Ray Tomblin, the Honorable Governor of West Virginia, in response to a letter from Jan Riffe which appeared in numerous newspapers throughout the state. All of the quotes from Mr. Riffe came from a letter he submitted to the Logan Banner, March 30, 2014.
Dear Governor Earl Ray Tomblin:
It has to my attention through recent articles in the “Letters to the Editor” columns in several state newspapers, that Jan Riffe of Greenbrier County has taken it upon himself to chastise me, our honorable delegates and senators that represent Logan County, and the DNR biologists of not only West Virginia, but also those in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Missouri, Wisconsin, Virginia, and North Carolina. His assertions about the reintroduction of elk into southern West Virginia are not only baseless, they are entirely inaccurate.
Assertion One by Riffe: “You would have great difficulty finding one well-qualified biologist who would recommend…stocking elk in Logan County.”
Fact: Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Kentucky have all successfully implemented restocking elk programs. An economic impact study on the program in Kentucky supplied by their biologists’ show millions of dollars have been added to the economy since this program was introduced in 1997. Some of the money comes from a $10 lottery fee paid by applicants who want to hunt elk. Although thousands have applied every year since the hunt was announced, only a limited number are awarded the license to hunt. This fee is nonrefundable. In a study conducted in 2006-2007, 26,000 paid $10 to be a part of this lottery (cows only), netted earning $260,000 for the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In 2008-2009, the fee was increased to $20 for a cow/bull permit and the number of applicants for the lottery had increased to 33,848, bringing in $676,960. According to Bill Carmen, one of 23 regional directors for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, this report does not even include the 10,000 sightseers who have taken advantage of a trail ride in Knott County, Ky. (Bluefield Daily Telegraph, July 16, 2012). The University of Kentucky Agricultural Department of Forestry sums up the economic impact stating, “The return of elk to eastern Kentucky in 1997 heralded the start of one of the most ambitious wildlife restoration projects in North America. In general, elk have offered few surprises in their return to Kentucky.” This is just the first direct misrepresentation Riffe asserted. Is Riffe saying that none of these states have qualified biologists? Has he failed to inform the public of this potential boost to our local community economic development? Apparently, either Riffe is not well acquainted with the successful programs that each of these states have implemented, or he is simply distorting what he wants to relate to the public.
Assertion Two by Riffe: “Although restocking elk anywhere in West Virginia if probably not advisable, if a decision is made to stock elk, the Logan County area certainly should not be the first choice area.”
Fact: Logan County and the surrounding southern counties are absolutely the best choice for reintroducing this native species back into our state. The UK Agricultural Department of Forestry Report asserts, “A key component in the ongoing success of this experiment is the widespread availability of reclaimed surface mines-rolling grasslands that appear to be miniature analogs of western elk range.” It has already been confirmed by trail cameras put out by the DNR, pictures taken by individuals, and accounts of numerous citizens, that elk from Kentucky are already migrating into the southern coalfields. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in cooperation with the W.Va. DNR conducted a study in 2011, to determine the best location for the reintroduction of elk into our state. At that time, two sites were considered: one in the Dolly Sods area and the other in the southern coalfield counties. Because of the proximity to a chronic wasting disease containment area zone in Hampshire and Hardy Counties, as well as a nearby county in Maryland, consideration of the northern site was eliminated. However, the terrain of the southern counties was so similar to those in neighboring Kentucky, the study revealed this to be its number one choice. (Verification can be found on the website: wvdnr.gov. See the elk management plan).
Assertion Three by Riffe: Among the personal qualifications that were listed by Rife in his article, he said he was “co-author of Feasibility of Stocking Elk in West Virginia.”
Fact: While it is questionable that Riffe did conduct this study for his name was not mentioned (only J.M. Griffin was noted as the author), he also failed to mention that the study was done in 1972, a study that is 42 years old! However, the study conducted by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in cooperation with DNR biologists was conducted in 2011. (http://www.wvnr.gov. See the elk management plan). Riffe’s study is now over four decades old as opposed to most recent study which is only three years old. Rife needs to realize that in the course of those 42 years since his study, there have been many changes. Forty two years ago, there had not been successful re-introduction programs in numerous surrounding states; 42-years ago, the coalfields were being more actively mined, strip- mining was not as prominent as it is today, and the area had a greater population; 42 years ago, the sentiment toward re-introduction of this native species was not as positive as it is today. While Riffe may have co-authored the study 42 years ago, he had absolutely no input in the recent study. I personally verified this with several DNR biologists.
Assertion Four by Riffe: “…it is disgusting to see a few members of the legislature think they are better qualified to make critical decisions on management of our State’s wildlife than hundreds of trained professionals hired to either make or recommend decisions that will have long term, wide spread, and potentially devastating results.” Logan Banner, March 30, 2014.
Fact: It is a reality that government makes decisions about every facet of our lives, not just wildlife management decisions. They influence education, health, and our economy, although they are not experts in each of those fields. Our elected officials represent us. That is our form of government. They cannot be an expert in each bill that is passed. Decisions are based on facts that are presented to them by responsible parties. Certainly, politics was involved in the re-introduction of elk in our neighboring states. Every neighboring state has had success with their programs. They share those success stories in an effort to maintain effective restocking programs in other states where the mighty elk were once a native species. Biologists in eastern Kentucky have met with West Virginia DNR officials on numerous occasions to share the steps in implementation process. West Virginia DNR officials have visited sites in Kentucky and seen for themselves just how flourishing their program has been. (Verify by contacting DNR biologists).
In conclusion, the only thing that separates the elk in Kentucky from the elk in the southern coalfields of West Virginia is the Tug Fork River. McDowell County borders Virginia, a state that also has a prospering elk re-introduction program. Elk that have migrated from these two states have been sited and documented in McDowell, Mingo, Logan, Wyoming, Wayne, and Boone Counties. The terrain and the habitats found in these areas are identical. If the needs of elk are being met in eastern Kentucky and western Virginia, they will also be met in the southern coalfields of West Virginia. There will always be naysayers who are opposed to change and want to give excuses to refrain from promoting proven SJCCCSSU programs, Out the facts prove that elk can and will thrive in West Virginia. The elk are here. They are thriving. Their numbers are increasing. What was once considered an impossibility in the 1970s when the report used by Riffe was done, is now a reality. The question becomes then: do we encourage the re-introduction program that has been supported by those DNR biologists involved in the 2011 study or do we listen to the naysayer who is basing his case on a 42-year old study?
Kenneth R. Wilson
West Virginia DNR