DNR biologist ‘suspicious’ about arrival
There’s no question that at least one small herd of elk has taken up residence in the rugged hills of Boone and Logan counties. What puzzles wildlife officials is where the critters came from, and how they got there in the first place.
“What makes us suspicious is that these elk suddenly seemed to appear all at once in a specific area,” said Tom Dotson, district wildlife biologist for the state Division of Natural Resources. “We don’t think they just wandered over the border from Kentucky.”
Elk were once abundant in the Eastern United States, but disappeared after human settlements began to dominate the landscape. They have since been reintroduced into several states — most notably Kentucky, where an estimated 5,700 elk now roam a 16-county area along West Virginia’s western border.
DNR officials had speculated that if the species ever got re-established in West Virginia, it probably would be when enough individual animals wandered across from Kentucky to begin forming herds.
“We’ve had sightings of elk in Mingo and Wayne counties [along the border], but up to now we’ve never had reports of any elk herds,” Dotson said. “Now we’re getting reports of up to six elk being seen at once. From what we’ve been able to piece together, there may be as many as 11 animals total.”
The first sighting occurred in mid-October near Boone County’s Wharton Grade School, where several witnesses spotted a young bull elk trying to cross a nearby highway.
“I sent [an assistant] down there to investigate,” Dotson said. “He got there in about a half hour. He found a lot of elk tracks, but by then the bull was gone.”
After West Virginia’s bowhunting seasons for deer and black bear began, elk sightings became more frequent. “We’ve received several dozen reports since then, most of them from bowhunters,” Dotson added.
The sightings assumed a pattern, starting in the Wharton-Bald Knob area and moving slowly southwest into Logan County.
“[Assistant wildlife biologist] Gary Sharp tracked one in the Skin Poplar watershed on the headwaters of Spruce Laurel Fork, right on the Boone-Logan border,” Dotson said. “And [wildlife commissioner] Kenny Wilson and I found the tracks of four to six elk over in the George’s Creek area [near Blair Mountain].”
One of the latest sightings stirred interest even further. While driving along W.Va. Route 10 between Man and Logan, a clerk at Chief Logan State Park spotted a lone bull elk standing near some railroad tracks.
“I knew immediately that it was an elk,” said Melissa Brown, who was on her way home from work at the time. “It was way too big to be a deer.”
Not only did Brown stop to look at the animal, she took pictures. Dotson said her photos, along with the many tracks that have been found, are “indisputable evidence” that elk are present in the area.
“The big question is where they came from,” he said. “I don’t think they just wandered over from Kentucky. They would have had to come through Mingo County to get to where they are now, and people would have seen them somewhere along the way.”
Both Dotson and commissioner Wilson said they received unconfirmed reports of a truck pulling an elk-filled trailer into the Bald Knob area at about the same time the sightings began.
“DNR Law Enforcement is investigating [the reports],” Dotson said. “So far, the investigation hasn’t turned up a lot of information. There’s a fair amount of speculation, but not much information.
“There are reports that a coal company might have had them brought in to ‘improve the environment.’ There’s also speculation that a hunting club might be behind [the stocking]. Whoever did it — if anyone did — they had to have had money, because elk aren’t cheap.”
For several years, sporting clubs have lobbied with wildlife officials for a state-sanctioned elk-stocking program. DNR administrators even commissioned a feasibility study to determine where those stockings might take place.
In September 2005, the discovery of chronic wasting disease in Hampshire County put the DNR’s elk project firmly on hold. Paul Johansen, the agency’s assistant wildlife chief, said concerns about disease triggered the freeze.
“Frankly, we’ve been so consumed with the CWD problem we haven’t had time to think about elk,” Johansen said. “And even if we did, there are disease problems associated with elk, too.”
The possibility that the Boone-Logan elk herd might have been pen-raised heightened DNR concerns even more.
“Not only can elk carry chronic wasting disease, they also can carry brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis,” Dotson said. “The main concern about wasting disease is that it can spread to deer. The concern about the other two diseases is that they can spread to domestic cattle.”
Even though DNR officials say they aren’t especially happy about the elk herd’s presence, they’re quick to point out that the animals shouldn’t be killed.
“Elk are a protected species,” Dotson said. “Anybody who killed one would be violating West Virginia law.”
By John McCoy
Staff writer for The Charleston Gazette