Virginia Officials Butt Heads Over Kentucky Elk

Hunters who kill elk in Buchannan County, Va., during legal hunting season this year may or may not go to jail. It all depends on who wins an argument between the Buchannan County Board of Supervisors and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

The supervisors recently passed a county ordinance declaring illegal the killing of elk within the county limits. But VDGIF has refused to publish the regulation in its hunting rules and has vowed not to enforce it. Buchannan County assistant attorney Frank Kilgore says the county sheriff will have the power to arrest anyone who kills an elk in Virginia and VDGIF should alert hunters to that possibility.

“In our opinion, they don’t have the legal authority to do that,” VDGIF wildlife manager Allen Boynton says.

But Kilgore disagrees. “Under Virginia law, an ordinance passed by [the Board of Supervisors] is presumed to be constitutional until the [Virginia] Attorney General issues a formal opinion or a court rules it unconstitutional,” he says. The attorney general’s office has signaled that it believes the ordinance is unconstitutional but has not issued a formal opinion.

Boynton estimates that 50-100 Kentucky elk have migrated to Virginia, and he believes there are about five of the animals currently living in Buchannan County. A majority of Buchannan County residents want to see them protected. Kilgore believes elk can help build a tourist industry in far southwest Virginia by bringing wildlife watchers and, eventually, hunters.

“People will travel to see elk during their rutting season” when the males put on impressive mating displays and bugle through the forest looking for mates, Kilgore says. He would like to see a large, huntable population established. But VDGIF remains unmoved by the county’s arguments and will allow harvesting of elk of both sexes beginning Oct. 5 with the bow hunting season.

These elk are no strangers to controversy. In 1998, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife released 167 Rocky Mountain elk into the mountains of eastern Kentucky. Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries strongly opposed this stocking so close to its border. Boynton says Virginia was forced to deal with the elk issue, but it wasn’t allowed any input on the decision. It takes money and staff to deal with elk, two things Virginia is in short supply of due to a severe budget shortfall.

And elk stocking is risky. The big herbivores cause traffic accidents — 30-40 non-lethal accidents involving elk have occurred in Kentucky since 1998 — and they can damage property and crops. Commercial farmers especially worry about the effects of elk. “Elk have been gone from the landscape for a long time, and we don’t know what impact they will have [on the ecosystem],” Kentucky big game biologist Jonathan Day says.

But Chronic Wasting Disease, or CWD for short, is the biggest threat posed by wayward elk. CWD is a form of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy — similar to “mad cow” disease — that affects deer and elk. There is no cure for this disease.

Neither is there a test that can be administered to live elk. The incubation period can be as long as five years. Once infected, animals literally waste away. When it is found in a herd, the herd is eradicated. There is no evidence that the disease can be spread to humans, but no one is sure.

Virginia game officials are worried that infected elk will devastate the white-tailed deer herd that generates approximately $300 million annually in licensing fees, gear, food, lodging and related revenues.

CWD has existed in the western United States for years, but it is spreading. Recently, 24 Wisconsin deer tested positive for CWD. This outbreak has made VDGIF officials even more nervous about Kentucky elk. To date, 100 harvested elk have been tested for CWD, and all have been negative.

But in June, just as VDGIF and Buchannan County officials sat down to have their first face-to-face conversation about elk in Southwest Virginia, a wild New Mexico mule deer tested positive for CWD. Authorities had thought CWD was spread only by farmed or penned animals, but that assumption may be wrong.

More frightening for VDGIF is the fact that Kentucky imported some of its elk from New Mexico. Kentucky big game biologist Jonathan Day says the CWD-positive mule deer was part of a herd that lived hundreds of miles away from the herd from which Kentucky got its elk.

Because of the threat of CWD, Virginia banned elk and deer farming in the early 1990s, but some existing deer farms were allowed to continue operating. Most of Virginia’s neighbors allow elk and deer farming.

Elk roamed much of the eastern United States until the late 1860s. In 1917, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Michigan re-established elk herds with animals brought from Yellowstone, Boynton says. Pennsylvania and Michigan’s herds still survive, but, by the 1970s, Virginia’s elk herds had died out.

To date, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife has released 1,553 elk into 14 counties. Ten “buffer” counties were also established to protect farmers and livestock owners in western Kentucky. Most of the Kentucky elk were released on reclaimed strip mine sites. Coal companies are required by law to return strip mines to a “natural” state, Day says. Most of the sites are large grassy fields — perfect habitat for elk. Day estimates the current Kentucky elk population at 2,200. “We’ve exceeded our reintroduction goal ahead of schedule,” he says. “We’re done stocking.”

Everyone involved agrees that it’s inevitable that some of these elk will migrate to neighboring states. Day says it’s not unusual for elk to wander 60-80 miles from their original release point. Tennessee also stocks elk, and West Virginia is trying to find funding for an elk restoration feasibility study. Virginia, with funding from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a non-profit conservation group, commissioned an elk restoration feasibility study which identified areas suitable for elk, mostly along the West Virginia border.

Kentucky has recently announced plans to open a lottery elk hunt for the 2003 season. A total of 12 elk – six male and six female – may be taken during this first season. They may only be harvested outside the 24-county restoration zone. Day says this hunt is a gift of appreciation to Kentucky’s hunters. “The hunters have supported and paid for the restoration program,” he says, “and the state also owes it to farmers to keep the elk in check.”

Meanwhile, the rancor between Buchannan County officials and VDGIF has cooled somewhat. Kilgore agrees that the threat of CWD is too great to risk importation of elk, and VDGIF has agreed to consider helping with a wildlife-watching station and reintroduction of falcons to Buchannan County. The hunting ordinance issue remains unresolved.


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