March 6, 2017|By Randy Kelley and Steven Dobey

In December 2016, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) welcomed back a species that had not inhabited the state since 1875. More than twenty elk were reintroduced at the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area near Logan in the southwestern part of the state. Through a partnership with The Conservation Fund, more than 32,000 acres of publicly accessible land has been acquired to establish a wildlife management area large enough to sustain an elk population. We sat down with Randy Kelley and Steven Dobey to talk about West Virginia’s new residents.

What makes the land in southern West Virginia, former mining lands, ideal for elk?

Randy: Although the topic of reintroducing elk had been discussed over the last four decades, the State began to look in earnest at reintroducing elk in the early 2000s after it was successfully done in Kentucky. Around that time the state conducted a feasibility study to evaluate suitable habitat and sociability areas for an elk population. The reclamation of mined lands in southern West Virginia, particularly those resulting from large Mountain Top Removal mines, had created a lot of early successional habitats and vast areas—a combination of things that are very suitable for elk.

Steven: In a sense, these reclaimed coal properties offer a blank canvas upon which the state or federal management agencies can create some amazing elk habitat. Elk require an abundance of open grassland or field pasture, and that’s not easy to find throughout much of the forested Southern Appalachians.

3 6 Elk Restoration LoganWestVirginia Frank Ceravalo22Reclaimed mining lands have mostly been logged at some point in history, and can be converted into fields and grassland habitat that are great for elk. Photo by Frank Ceravalo.

What has been Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s role in West Virginia’s elk reintroduction efforts?

Steven: Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s mission is to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat, and our hunting heritage. It’s not very often that we have the opportunity to work on a project where restoration efforts are being undertaken in conjunction with land acquisition efforts. Being able to tie in these two components of the West Virginia project—the simultaneous land acquisition and release of the elk—was so important and we were supportive of the project from the very beginning.

Our role has been two-fold. We’ve provided support as both a financial partner for restoration and research efforts as well as some habitat work, and we also provided logistical and technical support during the elk capture efforts in Kentucky at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in November 2016.

3 6 Elk Restoration LoganWestVirginia Frank Ceravalo54Elk settling into their new home in West Virginia. Photo by Frank Ceravalo.

The state used funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Program to purchase the first 10,000 acres from The Conservation Fund. This program helps States buy and enhance wildlife management areas. How can the conservation of these and other natural lands benefit both hunters and non-hunters?

Randy: All land enrolled in the wildlife management area is open to the general public, as well as to people that like to hunt and fish, giving equal opportunity to non-hunters who just want to get outdoors and enjoy wildlife.

Steven: First and foremost, acquisitions of this nature establish permanent protection to lands that could otherwise be sold for commercial and/or residential development. Consequentially, land conveyed to the state or federal natural resource agencies can be managed for wildlife in perpetuity. If that’s not enough, the lands will also establish new public access opportunities for sportsmen and women, as well as non-hunting recreational pursuits like hiking and birdwatching.   

Why is it important to acquire such a large landscape for this species?

Steven: Even though elk in the eastern U.S. don’t really migrate like their western counterparts, they are still a wide-ranging species, and you can’t control where these animals go. The home range of the cow elk in this region can be 10 to 15 square miles, and they tend to move up and down to different elevations to find food. Having an abundance of state-owned land and improving habitat conditions will increase the general herd health, bolster calf production, and equally important improve the quality of wildlife habitat for many species in addition to elk.

Randy: Acquiring large land areas was key so that once we got the elk, the public could have access to them. These animals are going to go onto private lands, like deer, turkey, or any other wild species that we’ve had a hand in reestablishing. It’s wildlife! But having the large public areas will ensure some level of access.

3 6 Elk Restoration LoganWestVirginia Frank Ceravalo33Elk are a wide-ranging species that will benefit from the 32,000 acres of publicly accessible land acquired to establish this wildlife management area in West Virginia. Photo by Frank Ceravalo.

Mature elk can weigh 500-700 pounds. How did you safely transport a group of animals that large?

Steven: Very carefully. A few things need to be considered to ensure safe transport of an animal that size. When you put even a few animals of that size into a trailer they generate a lot of heat. Transporting them in the summer would create a lot of excessive stress on the animal, so we chose instead to move them in the colder winter months. We also removed the bull elk’s antlers (they shed them naturally in late winter/early spring anyway) to avoid potential damage to other elk as well as the trailer itself. We also separated animals by sex and age and limited human interaction to keep them a little calmer. And in this case, it worked great. All the animals came through the transport process perfectly healthy.

3 6 DNRElk in the transport trailer. Photo by West Virginia DNR.

Can you describe the feeling you had when the elk were first released in West Virginia?

Randy: The feeling I had was part gratitude and part relief. I was born and raised in West Virginia, so I felt grateful for being able to help bring elk back to my home state. Personally, it was a sigh of relief being able to say, “They’re here, finally,” after going through the last couple years of preparation and anticipation.

Steven: I felt excited to see this huge team effort come to fruition. I felt relief that all the capture and transport efforts were successful. Most importantly, I was so proud that Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was able to participate in this historic, rewarding event.

When will the elk population be large enough to have a hunting season in West Virginia?

Randy: There’s no set timeline—it could be seven years; it could be ten years. We will continue to monitor the population and we plan to add additional animals in coming years. We are adjacent to the Kentucky and Virginia herds, so we could potentially get some influx from them as well. Once we feel that it is sustainable, we’ll start off with a limited harvest that won’t hurt the population growth.

Now that they are free to roam and get to know their new home, how will you monitor the elk and what are you looking for?

Randy: We have equipped each animal with a GIS transmitter collar that allows us to monitor its location. Currently, we’re just monitoring general movements, but plan to expand the research study over the next several years to look at home-range information, population growth success, and other data.

3 6 Elk Restoration LoganWestVirginia Frank Ceravalo65The WV elk wearing GIS transmitter collars. Photo by Frank Ceravalo.

Do you expect any baby elk in the spring?

Randy: Some of our cows did have positive pregnancy tests according to the pre-move health checks, so we expect that our first West Virginia calves will be born in the late spring or early summer of 2017.

Click here for more amazing photos and videos provided by West Virginia’s Division of Natural Resources, including a look at how they captured, transported, and released the elk, as well as photos from the elk restoration ceremony held in December 2016.

Read more about The Conservation Fund’s role in the West Virginia Elk Habitat project.

Click here to learn about the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and its mission.