Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

January 29, 2013

Transplanted elk herd at ‘100 percent’ in Buchanan County

By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

VANSANT, Va. — An observer might mistake the animals for deer at first, but they’re not deer; instead, they are new inhabitants that are adjusting to their new home in Virginia.

Back in May 2012, a small herd of elk was transplanted from Kentucky to a site in Buchanan County, Va. Since that time, their numbers have grown as they have acclimated to their new home.

“It is going excellent,” said Leon Boyd, a local volunteer with the Southwest Virginia Coalfield Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Right now, we’re at 100 percent on our elk. We released 16, and eight calves have been born. And all eight of the calves are living.”

Most of the elk have been staying near their release site at War Fork, an area near Vansant, Va., Boyd said. The vegetation that coal companies and natural gas companies have planted at their former sites — species of clover and grasses — have done a lot to help the elk and other wildlife.

The elk have not wandered far from their original site. One member of the transplanted herd went to nearby Dickenson County, but it returned later, Boyd said.

Now that the new herd has been established, there are plans to bring an additional 15 elk from Kentucky this coming May. How many arrive in Buchanan County will depend on the trapping season and whether all the collected animals pass quarantine, according to one Virginia wildlife specialist.

“It could vary one way or the other,” Allen Boynton, terrestrial wildlife program manager with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries said. “Animals stay in quarantine for 90-plus days in Kentucky, and they’re disease tested twice. That’s why we hedge on the numbers.”

The plan is to move approximately 75 elk in Buchanan County, Boynton said. The goal is to see this small herd then grow to approximately 400 animals.

“Elk are pretty easy to manage when it comes to the population size,” he said.

Elk have low reproduction rates, and their breeding habits help to keep their numbers under control. Hunting just a few bull elk will help keep their overall numbers in check.

“We would consider hunting before they reach the 400 mark, and that’s because of the breeding system of elk. They’re polygamists. They have a system where one bull will gather a herd, a harem, of cows. You end up having other mature bulls. You could harvest a few without affecting population growth in any way,” Boynton said.

In Tennessee, where an elk herd has grown to between 300 to 400 individuals, three to four elk hunting licenses are issued each year. More are issued in Kentucky where the elk population has grown to approximately 11,000 animals.

“It would be done by lottery — very similar to what is done in Kentucky,” he said. “I think they’re doing about 900 to 1,000 tags a year. It varies from year to year.”

Elk were wandering Southwest Virginia before the herd was transplanted to Buchanan County last year, Boynton stated. They have been seen in nine counties including a few sightings in Tazewell and Bland County. These elk have wandered into the state from Kentucky; most of them are found in Wise County.

“They’re large mammals,” he said. “They’re the size of small horses, and they’re capable of covering long distances.”

However, elk will not wander far if they do not have a reason to do so.

“They can be pretty faithful to one area as long as there’s food there and they’re not disturbed,” Boynton said. “We’ve been pleased that they have stayed where we released them, but they’re free to go where they want.”

Farmers in neighboring Tazewell County expressed concerns about elk carrying diseases to their livestock and damaging crops. Boyd said that so far, he has not heard about any problems with the elk.

“I haven’t personally had anyone tell me that they have seen anything in Tazewell or Russell counties,” he said. “In time, as the herd grows, they will probably spread out. I’m not sure what number (herd size) that will be.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com