Va. May Fill Its Own Hills with Rocky Mountain Elk


RICHMOND, Va.  More than 150 years after Virginia’s last native elk was killed, game officials may try to populate the state’s southwest corner with its bigger, buff-colored cousin the Rocky Mountain elk.

They say bringing back an elk subspecies could offer hunters another big-game animal and boost tourism in rugged southwest Virginia, but farmers fear it also could infect their livestock with diseases and damage crops.

As it happens, some elk have already arrived.

An estimated 125 to 150 Rocky Mountain elk have wandered into Virginia from Kentucky, where a restoration effort is well under way. That state is now home to more than 11,000 of the animals spread over 16 southern and southeastern counties. They graze on the reclaimed remnants of strip mines and attract hunters and tourists who want to glimpse an elk or hear its haunting bugle.

Kentucky’s elk restoration success has inspired Virginia to look anew at a management plan involving the Rocky Mountain species, encouraged by hunters and local officials who are seeking an economic stimulus in the coalfields territory, where unemployment flirts with double digits.

“I think there’s a lot of folks who would advocate that elk would enhance tourism and economic activity in the area of southwest Virginia and the coal-mining region,” said Charles Yates, a member of the Board of Inland Game and Fisheries.

The proposal, scheduled for an initial hearing Thursday, has stirred opposition from farmers and support from hunters, based on hundreds of comments sent to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Elk restoration could nurture livestock diseases such as tuberculosis and brucellosis, Commissioner Todd S. Haymore of the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Resources wrote to the department.

The last known Eastern elk bagged in Virginia were taken in 1854 and 1855 in Clarke County, in the state’s far northern corner near West Virginia. Their skins are stored in the Smithsonian Institution. The species is now extinct.

This wouldn’t be the first attempt to return elk to Virginia.

Some 150 Rocky Mountain elk, slightly larger than the native elk, were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park nearly a century ago. They and their offspring were killed off by hunters.

Kentucky now has the largest elk herd east of the Dakotas.

This year, some 46,000 people from across the U.S. paid $10 each to participate in a Kentucky lottery for 1,000 elk tags in a hunt for up to 250 bulls and 750 cows.

Besides being a prized target for hunters, the majestic species native to the West has drawn tourists seeking to glimpse and hear the elk. The Kentucky Department of Parks offers elk tours in the fall and winter at three state parks.

“It’s going fantastic,” Tina Brunjes, big game program coordinator with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, said of the restoration program. “The elk have just thrived. They really seem to like it here.”

Michigan, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains also have successfully brought back elk.

In Virginia, hunters in recent years have legally taken a couple of elk during whitetail deer season. State game officials want to end that practice while they decide whether they should develop a plan to formally restore elk to the state and establish a distinct elk hunt.

Bob Ellis, director of the wildlife division of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said if the state opts to restore elk, it must decide how to build a population. That could entail a continued ban on hunting elk to allow the species to multiply or moving more of the animals into the state from the West.

“Kentucky has a herd that looks pretty healthy,” Ellis said, adding that the two states haven’t talked about shifting Kentucky elk into Virginia.

In developing a management plan, Virginia officials will look closely at the potential spread of disease and the impact on farming. Ranchers in some Western states complain of elk plowing through fences and infecting livestock with brucellosis, which can cause pregnant cattle to abort their young.

In his letter to the game board, Agriculture Commissioner Haymore said keeping Virginia’s livestock disease-free is critical for owners “to move their animals in interstate commerce with minimal individual animal testing requirements.”

The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation voiced similar concerns and added another: vehicles colliding with elk. Bulls can weigh up to 900 pounds.

“Imagine the damage they could cause in a collision,” said Wilmer Stoneman of the Farm Bureau.

Officials in Kentucky said their elk population is disease free. They report only scattered instances of elk running afoul of farmers, and no deaths related to elk-vehicle encounters.

Jack Blackwell of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation said the group, which claims 500 chapters around the U.S., is poised to help Virginia develop a management plan.

“You’ve got elk in your state already,” he said. “The question now is, what does the state of Virginia want to do?”

FYI – The Board of Game and Inland Fisheries has proposed a regulation amendment that would prohibit the hunting of Rocky Mountain elk in Virginia. The Board will take final action on this proposed regulation amendment at the October 22, 2009 meeting.

I will follow up with the results of this vote!

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