By Chris Ellis
For The Register-Herald
Growing up on the Elk River, just outside of a little town named Elkview, I was often curious as to why rivers and towns were named after an animal not found there. The fact is, elk used to roam our hills and hollers in abundance long ago. But by the late 1800s, elk were completely eliminated from West Virginia. The last native elk records were reported from the headwaters of the Cheat River in Pocahontas County in 1873, and the Webster Springs area of Webster County in 1875.
Thanks to the elk restoration efforts of our neighboring states and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, elk are again taking hold in the Appalachian Mountains. In fact, Kentucky’s elk herd, the largest herd east of the Rockies, was restored with financial and technical support from RMEF in the 1990s. That herd now numbers more than 10,000 animals, is a major tourism draw, offers ever-increasing hunting opportunities and is now serving as a source herd for restoration efforts in other states.
With Virginia recently changing its stance on elk restoration, our southern counties border elk country even more so. Not all the elk understand borders, though. In the southern coalfield counties of West Virginia, reports of elk are not unusual and it’s commonly believed that we now have elk moving across our borders.
In 2005, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources’ wildlife resources section contracted with the State University of New York’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry to evaluate elk habitat suitability in West Virginia. Funding for the feasibility study was provided by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and a report titled “Biological Assessment of Potential Habitat for Elk in West Virginia” was prepared. In addition, an elk management plan was recently drafted with a primary goal to passively establish and manage a healthy elk population within a seven-county region of southwestern West Virginia that is compatible with biological and sociological conditions and provides recreational opportunities and other benefits for the citizens of West Virginia.
That is where we sit today — a passive approach to elk establishment in southern West Virginia. Having said that, at a recent sportsman’s event I attended this past week, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced during his speech that he felt it was time to restore elk in West Virginia. Using Kentucky as a reference, the governor talked of the economic benefits and recreational opportunities an elk herd in southern West Virginia would provide.
Elk are big business. People travel to see restored elk in their natural environment, and watchable wildlife programs have a proven track record. Hunters pay money to have their name in a lottery drawing for a slim chance to hunt elk in the Appalachian Mountains and the money is used for wildlife projects. Southern West Virginia is blessed with large tracts of land for the elk to roam, and perhaps the governor is spot-on — it is time to talk elk restoration.
As for me, I sure would like to stand high on a ridge top on a crisp, autumn morning and hear the bugle of an elk as it echoes across our great West Virginia mountains. With talks of elk restoration and a proactive approach, it might just happen.