On a recent proud day, a regal native son believed to have been extirpated there circa 1855 made its historic return to the Old Dominion. Scores of folks, some of them obviously emotional, witnessed the event as eleven elk were released near the Buchanan County seat of Grundy on May 18, 2012. For the big members of the deer family, it’s obviously been a long time coming.
A nicely done web-video shows the cooperating State Game Department (VDGIF), Rocky Mountain Elk Federation (RMEF) and the Virginia Elk Restoration Project consummating the efforts of many on the ceremonious occasion. The initial eleven transplants obtained from Kentucky’s nearby and certified disease free herd included five bulls, five cows and one calf of the species.
Each of the transplanted elk is radio-collared and ear-tagged to allow for close monitoring. The stated goal for the new, single county Virginia elk range is to stock a total of 75 head over the next few years, allowing them to expand to around 400 animals.
For reference, Kentucky’s multi-county herd of 11,000 head is the most abundant east of the Rocky Mountains, having been established similarly via stockings from western U.S. sources in just 15 years. The Bluegrass elk in turn are now being sought by other states seeking wapiti, as they’re also called, most notably Missouri and Virginia.
However, they presently limit their cross-state sharing to 50 head per annum to include no branch antlered males, which are highly treasured by hunters and viewers alike. What’s more, Kentucky’s herd recently offered a thousand hunting tags in a single year while it garners tremendous pride and a major tourist following!
The Old Dominion wasn’t always so elk friendly, particularly in agricultural zones where a few Kentucky elk had already been making cross state forays. They were once simply deemed as deer, allowed to be shot during regular Virginia deer hunting venues. At least in West Virginia, another border player in this tri-state elk zone of sorts, they have complete legal protection.
The Virginia sentiment eventually softened however, signified by the passage of elk enabling legislation. But in the end, it resulted in just one, rather small mountainous, coal-based and non-agricultural county as its only approved option.
The surface coal mining generated shrub-scrub niche there is similar to Kentucky’s core habitat. Another parallel with the east Kentucky elk zone, Buchanan County, VA is listed as that state’s as well as one of the 100 poorest in the nation in terms of per capita income. That’s a ditto for the relict coal community of McDowell County, WV which borders Buchanan just to the north. If anything, they can at least be richer for harboring elk.
As an ultra-cautious player in the tri-state elk restoration business, West Virginia DNR has belatedly established a seven county “passive” restoration zone. That is, the Mountain State will ever so slowly let the Bluegrass and now Old Dominion elk trickle into its own southwestern coalfields of their own volition. That may take decades to scores of years, however.
One thing’s for sure, if West Virginia eventually decides to actively stock with elk from Kentucky, they’re going to have to get in line.