“Elk don’t know how many feet a horse have.”
— Bear Claw Crislap in the movie “Jeremiah Johnson”
For many of us in the hunting and fishing outdoor world, the elk has always been a symbol of the wilderness. As kids we dreamed of hunting them in the Rocky Mountains, hearing the bugle of bull elk in the high meadows and packing out our kill on the horses in a pack train. Many of the hunters I know have done that, often at great expense, on guided or do-it-yourself hunts in the western states. The elk is an animal that drew us out of our eastern woodland world, and we could dream of tracking them in the western boondocks.
I don’t know if you know it or not, but elk were at one time found east of the Big Muddy. Yep, they were native all over what is now the eastern United States. Early settlers found them both in the river valleys and in the mountains. Can you imagine? Think of the wildest palace you hunt in Georgia, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, West Virginia or Virginia, and think of elk being there, seeing them crash through the timber or hearing a big, ornery bull bugle on a foggy morning.
Several eastern states have reintroduced elk and now West Virginia is joining the ranks.
Sometime this week Elk Project Leader Randy Kelley, a Division of Natural Resources wildlife biologist, will open the gate on a large pen which holds 50 elk (brought here from Arizona) on a high ridge in the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan County. The elk will hopefully leave quietly and join about 40 elk from Kentucky that have already been released in the area. At least two calves have been born to the Kentucky elk released last year and several of the cows in the Arizona herd are reportedly pregnant. The West Virginia elk herd is off and running.
Elk are members of the deer family Cervid, along with whitetail and mule deer, moose and caribou. The male elk or bulls are known for being very vocal during the breeding season or the rut as it is known and have a strange wavering almost haunting call known as a bugle. Once you have heard an elk bugle in the wild, you will never forget it, and you will never mistake it for any other sound in the wilderness.
Several eastern states already have elk reintroduction programs, including Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, Arkansas and Pennsylvania. The most successful so far seems to be Kentucky, which went full bore on its elk stocking efforts between 1997 and 2002. Over 1,500 western elk were released in a 16 county area in the eastern part of the state. There were many skeptics about this endeavor (I was probably one of them), but the elk have flourished in Kentucky, and the DNR there estimates they have at least 11,000 animals in the state.
The elk season is very popular in Kentucky, and each year thousands of nonresidents (like me) apply for some highly sought after elk tags. The economic benefit of having an elk hunting season and wildlife watching for these big animals is estimated to be in the millions of dollars.
One reason that West Virginia DNR chose the southern coalfield area of the state to be the first to receive elk is because it is directly adjacent to eastern Kentucky and their elk area. Most of the year an elk can wade across the Tug River into West Virginia and not even get his belly wet, and some of them already have. This area can get the benefit of receiving some animals from Kentucky at no cost or work to the Mountain State. Thanks, Kentucky!
The big question that many West Virginia hunters have, of course, is when we will see an elk season here. When I visited with Elk Project Leader Randy Kelley, I didn’t put him on the spot and ask him that. There are many factors to be considered and we will all just have to wait to see how it goes for these elk in their new home. The elk in Kentucky seem to be in a very similar area and they have done well. I think sportsmen can be optimistic for now and hope the elk in Logan County will do as well. Only because I sometimes like to live dangerously, and this is strictly my prediction, not based on anything that anyone told me, I would not be surprised if we saw a limited, by permit, elk hunt in the next five years.
Historians tell us the last elk were taken in West Virginia in the late 1870s; now they are back. Remember that this entire endeavor was funded by hunter dollars and organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.
Give these elk some time to settle down and get settled in their new home, then get down there and see if you can hear a bull bugle on a frosty fall morning.
Elk are back in West Virginia and I wish them well.