Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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July 16, 2012

Elk hunting in W.Va.?

Beckley — Thanksgiving week in West Virginia ignites anew an age-old tradition of fanning across the rugged mountains in search of deer, and if a hunter is successful, the foray translates into a 200-pound buck.

Imagine coming home with an animal four times as heavy with a massive rack and meat that isn’t that far away from beef.

Granted, the day of stalking elk again in West Virginia could be years away, but some elk are here, and a conservation group known as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is already laying the groundwork for the future.

Once native to West Virginia but becoming extinct in the Mountain State in the late 1800s, elk have been drifting across the border from Kentucky the past few years, where an initial contingent of seven were put on the ground in 1997. Within a few years, some 1,500 transplanted elk were brought into Kentucky from seven western states and the herd has grown considerably.

Just how many elk roam the hills of West Virginia isn’t known, but the Division of Natural Resources is currently trying to get a handle on that number with motion-sensitive cameras. The so-called “elk zone” consists of Wayne, Lincoln, Boone, Mingo, Logan, Wyoming and McDowell counties.

Already, one legislator is preparing a bill for introduction next winter to legalize elk hunting in the state, and Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, sees this as a bonanza for the tourism industry.

“I plan on moving forward with it,” she said.

Normally, it takes more than one session to get a new law enacted, and one of Sobonya’s goals for the moment is to get the dialogue started.

“I think this could be a big tourism thing for West Virginia,” she said. “In states that have it, a lot of people go to those certain states merely for the hunting of elk.”

Besides hunting, which the Elk Foundation certainly endorses as a management tool, Bill Carman, a Kentuckian who serves as one of 23 regional directors for the RMEF, overseeing his state along with West Virginia and Tennessee, touts the benefits of tourism dollars generated by visitors who merely go to enjoy the sight of the husky animals.

“We do have a lot of tourists that come in just to look at elk,” he says.

One cannot ignore the money elk hunting provides, just as the annual bucks-only deer season does in West Virginia.

A feasibility study done a few years back showed the average elk hunter shell outs $1,000 in eastern Kentucky, but in today’s more sophisticated hunt, that could be higher because there now are many guides who charge from $1,000 to $3,000 for their services, Carman said.

“If you know anything about the economic impact, with those numbers, you put a multiple on them,” he said.

That means some $1.5 million in new revenue is being circulated, and that doesn’t include the money laid out strictly by sightseers, who can take advantage of a trail ride in Knott County, Ky., one that pulls in 10,000 visitors a year.

“You can imagine the economic impact of something like that,” Carman said.

Carman has met on occasion with West Virginia DNR officials and sees the agency as “between a rock and a hard place” with regard to elk restoration.

“It takes, early on, in an elk restoration process, a fair amount of resources,” he said.

“They may be strapped for resources. Then, there may be some unknowns out there they are a little worried about. One of those is access. What you don’t want in an elk restoration process is where you’re putting elk on private property for private individual use as their own ‘zoo’ or hunting club, or whatever. You’ve got to make sure you’ve got plenty of public opportunities if you spend public money on that kind of project.”

West Virginia certainly is blessed with a natural habitat conducive to maintaining an elk herd, he said.

Kentucky issues 900 regular permits annually, and the lucky hunters are the ones chosen via a lottery system in which $10 is plucked down per application, for either archery or rifle. With 70,000 applications, for example, the state fetches some $700,000 for its fish and wildlife programs.

“You can’t do that in West Virginia,” Carman said. “It would require some legislation to take advantage of that as a funding source.”

Depending on the state, the caliber of permissible rifle varies. In Kentucky, the minimum caliber is .270 to engage elk.

“They’re big,” Carman said. “It takes a fair amount to bring them down. The bigger the rifle, the better you are.”

The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was launched in 1984 in Troy, Mont., by four hunters worried about the dwindling habitat who decided to start a group patterned after Ducks Unlimited to give the animals more places to roam.

Almost three decades later, the foundation sees its mission on a number of fronts.

“First is habitat protection,” Carman explained. “We buy land and do conservation easements to protect land for wildlife. If a prime piece of property is important for wildlife and it’s threatened, we do that — buy it or put conservation easements on it. Quite often, we turn it over to a public agency later on.”

Enlisting youth groups, the foundation also strives to teach conservation.

“A third one is habitat enhancement,” he said. “We go into a piece of property that already might be public land but it needs some work. We’ll pay for that kind of work. We do that all the time.”

One source of elbow room for the elk is old, reclaimed mining sites, he said.

A fourth element in the foundation’s mission is to help agencies restore elk once they have decided to embark on such a project.

“I think the biggest challenge facing the eastern herds right now is public access,” Carman said.

“All normal challenges that agencies face are not insurmountable through good planning — automobile accidents, agriculture conflicts, disease transmission, all of those things that people normally bring up as an objection. Those challenges are not insurmountable through good planning.”

Yet of all the obstacles, public access is the hardest one, he said.

“Elk are big critters,” he said. “They require a lot of land. If you don’t have the public land, you’ve got to figure out a way to get public access on private land.”

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