Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 22, 2010

Southwest Virginia may have big opportunity with reintroduction of elk

Southwest Virginia has a big opportunity — or a big problem — on the horizon. The discussion at hand is  about elk — giant animals that could bring in money, or hurt farmers, depending on one’s point of view.

Last week, the Virginia Board of Game and Inland Fisheries voted to approve a plan to reintroduce elk into Buchanan County. The idea is to introduce 75 elk, and then raise the herd to a peak of 400 animals.

Farmers in neighboring Tazewell County are concerned. They cite the potential for crop damage from the elk, who may very well venture across county lines to sample agriculture offerings.

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After the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries vote, I had many questions.

The first: Where do the elk come from? Would they be brought in from farms or the wild?

My next question: How would they be brought in? I had visual images of cattle trailers filled with elk, but I didn’t know if that would be the case.

How does one transport on elk? And when will they arrive?

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My questions were answered by Allen Boynton, regional wildlife manager for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Boynton, like the rest of us, is new to the elk game. But he has done his research. He knows about elk introduction in other parts of the U.S., and he knows how, statistically, it would affect us.

During a telephone interview last week, Boynton explained how an elk introduction into Buchanan County would not occur this year. “This is work you would do in the winter, because elk are very much adaptable to cold weather, and it’s actually summertime heat that stresses them. Anytime we capture wild animals and hold them and move them, we want to minimize that (stress).

“Our goal is not this winter but the winter after,” he said. “Because really what we’ve done (at this point) is a policy decision to start encouraging elk in three counties. We’ve really been focusing on going through the public input process. We haven’t found a release site, or got any agreements from landowners.”

Boynton said his department’s intent is to work with landowners in affected areas to allay their concerns. “Elk are big animals, and can cause damage, just like bear and deer,” he said, noting there have been concerns about bear in the Bluefield area. “They’re big, and they can eat your daisies. People are excited about it, and yet don’t know about elk.”

Boynton said to think of elk as a big deer (various websites note elk can range in size from about 550 pounds to more than a 1,000). “However they are different in that they have a different ecology. They don’t have as high a birth rate — only one calf a year. And they don’t have young until they are 3 years old. They have a much lower reproductive potential than deer, and they’re managed differently. They require protection from poaching. And in Kentucky (where they have been reintroduced) people are very protective of elk.”

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Elk is not a new species to the two Virginias. Elk were a native species to the region that were eradicated in the mid 1800s, according to Boynton. “The last ones known to be killed in Virginia were in 1855 — that was up in northwestern Virginia. It’s probably similar in West Virginia,” he said.

However, in the early 1900s Virginia released elk into the region.

The state released elk from Yellowstone in 1917 through the 1920s, Boynton said. “There were two herds near Mercer County in the area of the Giles and Bland county line. They had a herd there that persisted until the 1970s.”

Learning that elk inhabited our region when I was a child was an eye-opening experience. I had no idea these majestic animals were a part of our early culture. But there was still more to learn.

When Kentucky recently reintroduced elk, not all of the animals stayed put. According to Boynton, some elk did move across state lines, with two eventually being killed in North Carolina.

The elk also ventured into Virginia. “There was a time in Grundy, when Kentucky was first releasing, that there were a couple (of elk) coming out on the slate dump behind the McDonald’s near Vansant,” Boynton said.

He noted how customers would go to the restaurant for their early-morning coffee and watch the elk on the slate dump.

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So when Buchanan County is ready for elk, where would they come from?

“We hope to be able to get them from Kentucky,” Boynton said. “However we would consider any source that would be a safe source. Some populations would carry a disease risk and we would not consider that as a possible source. The elk in Kentucky we consider a safe source.”

Once the wild elk is trapped and captured, it would be moved to a quarantine site and tested for disease. This is a process that would be carried out in the winter.

In several states where elk have been reintroduced, officials have developed elk viewing areas so tourists can safely watch the animals. Boynton said two good times to view the animals are during the late-summer and fall breeding season, and in the winter when they may gather by the hundreds to form large herds.

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At this point, it’s still too early to tell if elk will be a boon or bust to the Southwest Virginia economy. But perhaps we should be optimistic and look toward the potential tourism dollars.

The elk are coming. And, to answer my earlier question, it will be by livestock trailers.

Now we must simply opt to embrace the herd and its economic potential, or worry about problems that don’t yet exist.

Samantha Perry is managing editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com.

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