By Rachel Pressley
As of late July, 23 elk roamed new public lands in southern West Virginia. The herd was introduced to the area in December 2016 as part of an effort to rebuild an elk population in the Mountain State.
Native to North America, elk began declining after Europeans arrived. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by 1880 the Eastern elk was extinct. The Rocky Mountain elk and the Manitoban elk are the two subspecies being reintroduced to lands once part of the Eastern elk’s historic range.
During 2015 and 2016, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources acquired more than 44,000 acres that make up the Wildlife Management Area known as the elk zone. The land was obtained by purchasing and leasing separate tracts of land including 32,000 acres within Wapiti Woods, located in the Allegheny National Forest.
The Conservation Fund, an environmental nonprofit organization that focuses on preservation, along with 19 different organizations and many volunteers, joined in the effort to secure this land, which was once owned by mining, timber and land-holding companies. Some parcels are still awaiting post-mining reclamation.
The groups are all helping with the active elk restoration plan, which, according to the West Virginia Division of Game and Inland Fisheries, is addressing possibilities for elk management in Virginia while taking into consideration the biological, sociological, economic and environmental issues present.
Currently, more than three-fourths of the land is accessible to the public, while the rest is inaccessible until the reclamation bonds are released.
“We hope to establish a healthy, self-sustaining elk herd that we can one day have to offer for hunting opportunities, while at the same time, offering a lot of opportunities for public enjoyment,” says Randy Kelley, the state’s elk project leader.
The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources is managing the elk zone and plans to release more Rocky Mountain elk to the area.
Kelley explained that to be able to eventually bring in more elk, the agency’s Wildlife Resources Section is planning to lease and buy land as it becomes available for two other primary release areas. These sections will be part of the southern portion of the elk zone and will be protected and open to the public for recreational uses.