Elk herd thriving after four years in West Virginia

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MINGO COUNTY, WV (WOWK) – These male elk are right at home on this reclaimed surface coal mine in Mingo County, West Virginia.

Around 80 elk roam the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Mingo and Logan counties.

“The word that’s commonly associated with them is majestic. They hold their heads high, they’re proud and they kind of prance more than run,” said Randy Kelley, a wildlife biologist and the elk project leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources.

I had never seen elk before so in mid-Ocober I went out looking for them with Kelley.

The DNR started bringing elk back to the Mountain State in 2016 from a facility in Western Kentucky.

“And we did our first stocking in 2016 where we released 24 elk from Land Between the Lakes,” said Kelley.

In 2018, 15 more elk from Western Kentucky and 46 from Arizona were released in the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area.

The elk had to be quarantined in a holding pen in Logan County, first.

Not all of them survived… some died while in transit or quarantine.

And around one-third of the Arizona elk died from a parasite after eating snails that had consumed brainworm eggs.

“This summer we have not had those kinds of issues. We have lost an elk or two but it’s more in line with what we expected,” Kelley said.

He said this rugged terrain is good for the elk.

“Well what the coal mining has done in Southern West Virginia is create some early successional habitats. Some grasses and things like that. A lot of forbes,” he said.

The male elk are called — “bulls”. The female elk — “cows”.

We visited the elk toward the end of their mating season.

Kelley said about 15 calves have been born here each of the past two summers.

We enjoyed following the elk around and saw them from a distance. After about two hours, we saw two bulls about 70 yards away at a place called Rattlesnake Point.

“Those are three- to four-year-old bulls so they’re going to weigh probably 650 pounds probably, somewhere in that neighborhood,” Kelley said.

He said the older, bigger bulls can weigh between 800 and 1,000 pounds!

They like to establish their dominance in the herd.

“When somebody hears one bugle for the first time I like to tell them Welcome to West Virginia elk country because that’s exactly what it has become,” Kelley explained.

Most of the elk have radio collars with transmitters and are tracked on a laptop computer.

West Virginia State Parks have hosted popular elk tours in years’ past but they were cancelled this year due to covid-19.

The wildlife area, however, is open to the public.

“As far as seeing elk you may have to walk a little way for a little bit longer, we’re working on those access issues and we’ll resolve those as the mining operations move and complete in some area,” Kelley said.

The DNR hopes to have an elk hunting season someday, but that’s still years away.

Meanwhile, Kelley believes the elk herd will eventually generate millions of dollars from tourists who come to southern west Virginia to see them.

The elk program is funded by sportsmen through hunting licenses, a federal excise tax on guns and ammunition, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Conservation Fund, and other private donors and foundations.

There’s no word yet on when more elk will be brought to West Virginia.

But the DNR hopes to open a second release site in Wyoming or McDowell County.

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