Elk restoration project advancing in Virginia

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VANSANT, Va. (AP) — Early on a Saturday morning, Leon Boyd navigated the twisting roads into the rocky countryside high above Grundy.

Boyd has hunted these hills and elsewhere since he was a boy but, on this morning, he was in search of something he's never hunted in Virginia — elk — and he wanted nothing more than a glimpse. As the sun peeked over the ridges, Boyd was armed only with binoculars. He merely wanted to see the elk so he could show them to visitors before they — the elk, not the visitors — disappeared into the shelter of a thicket for most of the day.

Boyd, chairman of the Southwest Virginia Coalfields chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, is deeply involved as a volunteer in The Virginia Elk Restoration Project, a collaborative effort to bring elk — once native to Virginia — back to the commonwealth.

"I've enjoyed this more than any hunting I've ever done," Boyd said. "The opportunity came up to be able to reintroduce them, and how many chances in your lifetime would you get a chance to be a part of that?"

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is overseeing the restoration project to establish a sustainable elk herd in Southwest Virginia. The agency released 16 elk on reclaimed mining land in Buchanan County in 2012, 10 the following year and an additional 45 in April, the last planned relocation of elk in the project. With calving, the herd could be over 100 by the end of June, said Allen Boynton, a terrestrial wildlife program manager with the agency.

Hundreds of years ago, elk ranged over most of Virginia, as far east as the fall line, Boynton said. However, elk were particularly susceptible to hunting, he said, and they were mostly gone from Virginia by the 1850s. Elk are fairly adaptable and can be found over large swaths of North America, but except for an occasional sighting of an elk in Virginia, attempts over the years to establish herds of wild elk in the state have failed.

This time around, however, using the success of elk restoration projects in Kentucky and other states as a guide, Virginia's effort to bring back the elk seems to be working.

"We can't restore every native species," Boynton said, "but this is one we could."

Off the main road, Boyd steered his truck along unpaved roads across mountaintop land that was surface-mined years ago but now is growing up thick in grass and clover, which elk love (and which was planted by the mining company that once tore coal from this mountain). With a ready food source, this reclaimed land was a good fit for the elk, which require about 20 pounds of forage a day.

An "Elk Crossing" sign stands as both a caution to adventurous motorists on the bumpy dirt path as well as something of a modest joke since the closest highway is nowhere near. The project's official restoration area covers three counties — Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise — and 800,000 acres.

While elk certainly have the ability to roam widely and do and have splintered into smaller groups, many of these elk seem to stay relatively close to the area known as War Fork in Buchanan, where they were released after having been captured in Kentucky and quarantined for weeks to make certain they carried no diseases harmful to domestic livestock.

The elk don't seem to have crossed a nearby gap to another mountain of reclaimed land where a community is under construction with substantial houses, a public park and incredible vistas that offer eyefuls of rolling mountains deep into the distance. Too much activity, Boynton said. "They're wild," he said, "and they're shy."

The state's goal is to build and maintain a herd of about 400. So far, so good. The elk that have been released are collared and tracked, and only three have died: One bull was killed during a fight with another during mating season, another was found with injuries likely incurred during a fall or a fight, and a third succumbed to a common bacterial infection that did not affect other members of the herd.

In fact, disease was a primary reason Boynton and others originally opposed the restoration project. He feared the development of chronic wasting disease, a transmissible neurological disease, which has affected elk in the west. However, the disease never showed up in the herd established in eastern Kentucky in the 1990s, and Kentucky — with a herd of about 15,000 — has enjoyed success building its herd on reclaimed mine sites, so Boynton changed his view.

"I became more hopeful about managing elk in Virginia," he said. "I knew that we had habitat in our coal-producing area of the state that was similar to the elk habitats in Kentucky. And as I started working with Kentucky to carry out the board's decision to bring elk to Virginia, I learned more about elk and have become more convinced that we could manage an elk herd successfully."

Other concerns by those who objected to bringing back the elk — traffic hazards and property damage — also have not materialized, though as the herd grows and spreads to areas with more of a farming economy, conflicts could emerge, Boynton said.

Hunting, on a very limited basis, could begin by 2018 or so in Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise, Boynton said; by law, elk hunting is permitted at the moment in the rest of Virginia, though there are essentially no elk to hunt. Tourism could be a bigger draw, an important consideration in a part of the state that is increasingly counting on the economic impact of travelers.

If herd development continues apace, the elk could stand alongside local experiences such as kayaking the Russell Fork, biking on mountain trails and visiting Breaks Interstate Park as attractions for tourists.

Breaks Park, which features the largest river gorge east of the Mississippi, has run a guided tour to view the elk herd and plans to offer such tours as a regular attraction, said Todd Christensen, executive director of the Southwest Virginia Cultural Heritage Foundation.

"Buchanan County has been working to establish focused destinations to draw people to appreciate the rugged beauty of the whole of the county and spend some money locally," Christensen said. "The elk herd greatly adds to the county's ambient attraction and strengthens its brand."

"Here's an elk right here!" Boyd exclaimed as he slowed his vehicle and came to a stop. Several elk came into view maybe half a mile away. Two carloads of visitors stood quietly in the early morning light and intently scanned the distant clearing with field glasses for view of the animals. Rocky Mountain elk, the variety transplanted here, are larger than deer. Males can grow to 700 pounds.

Christensen half-joked that it was "like looking for ponies on Assateague."

A little later and around a curve on the driven path, three more elk stood in a field: a female wearing a tracking collar and two calves born since the restoration began. Soon enough, all three reared their heads back and majestically trotted off.

One of the highlights of his involvement for Boyd, a vice president for a well-drilling company, is taking people to look for elk. Last fall, during mating season, he took a group of teenagers to see what they could see. They were talking and joking and not paying all that much attention.

"I was trying to explain to them that these animals are wild, and the way they were carrying on they weren't going to see any elk," he recalled. "I wasn't getting anywhere, and then one of the elk bugled, and it was like hitting the power off. They (the teens) got real quiet. I didn't have to say anything else. The rest of the evening they were focused and just getting pictures.

"That was just amazing to see kids hear one bugle in the wild. It was a lot of fun."

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Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch, http://www.timesdispatch.com

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