Update: article has been updated to reflect that Missouri reintroduced elk beginning in 2010.
A plan by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (DNR) could bring back elk to southern West Virginia in a massive reintroduction effort. Following the results of a feasibility study, officials are now considering transporting elk from Kentucky to create a native elk herd.
According to Metro News, the last wild elk in West Virginia was harvested in 1875. Although there have been confirmed sightings of elk across the southern stretches of the state, most of these encounters are believed to be elk traveling from nearby Kentucky. Building off the work of states like Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Arkansas, which have successfully reintroduced elk, West Virginia officials are moving forward with a program that could take as long as two decades to complete.
“The southern coalfields have the least amount of suitable habitat,” said DNR Director Frank Jezioro. “But, there is no farming and no crop damage down there and the people would accept it. Plus we know Kentucky has had success with similar land and we knew this was the first place to start looking.”
States that have reintroduced elk have seen significant boosts to hunting and tourism, but also criticism from farmers. The DNR now has the rare opportunity of bringing the elk to a vast tract of land without threatening the local agricultural industry. However, this does not come without conflict. To acquire the necessary 30,000 to 40,000 acres for the program, the state will likely have to find a landowner who not only holds that much land, but is willing to sign an agreement to allow public access to the property.
“If you’re going to use hunters’ license money, you can’t put these elk on private land unless you have an agreement the hunters are going to have to have access to them,” said Jezioro. “Hopefully we’ll be able to find a large landowner down there that’s willing to do that. Everybody seems to think we surely will.”
If no such landowner can be found, the DNR intends on setting up the elk in Monongahela National Forest, pending public approval. The decision to place an elk herd in the national forest may lead to opposition from farmers in the nearby South Branch Valley.
“If we did decide to put them in the northern mountains, the first thing we would do is have a public meeting to see if the public would want them,” Jezioro said. “If they don’t, there’s no need to pursue it any further.”
Getting the elk would also be tricky, as the DNR has an eye on Kentucky’s growing herd. West Virginia is not the only state to have an interest, and is currently fourth on the waiting list to import elk from Kentucky. Experts predict it will take at least 15 to 20 years for a West Virginia elk herd to grow to a point where hunting would be allowed. However, others say it may not take as long. Another state that sought to create a native elk herd, Missouri, began reintroduction efforts in 2010 and might be seeing its first limited hunting season in 2016.