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Rumor had it that a herd of elk had returned to West Virginia.
To find out if it was true, one year ago this month, a few hundred people gathered on a muddy hilltop in Logan County, back in December 2016, to catch a glimpse of the large mammals that hadn’t graced these hills for nearly 150 years. But the elk were nowhere to be seen–they wouldn’t budge from cover. After some time, a gentle spook from an official from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) encouraged the animals to trot out from behind their bushes and into a grassy opening.
And then there they were. Folks smiled and took pictures. Then-Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and several others spoke about the importance of this moment and this project — the official reintroduction of elk into West Virginia. But most attendees didn’t stand near the speaker’s platform. Rather they were off to the right, looking down on the grassy opening, eyes fixed on an unusual sight in the Mountain State: A real, live, herd of elk.
We weren’t very close — the elk looked smaller from this distance — but with tan-brown coats and their size, you wouldn’t mistake them for deer. We also noticed that all of the bulls had their antlers removed, likely for safety during transportation. Most importantly though, we could verify with our own eyes, pure and simple, that a herd of elk were now in West Virginia.
The species is native to the state — to 20 states east of the Mississippi River, in fact, up to the coastal plains of the Atlantic Ocean. Elk are one of North America’s largest mammals. And as a member of the global deer family, Cervidae, elk are too among its largest. They weigh from 500 to 700 pounds, with bull elk reaching eight feet in length, from nose to tail.
Following the European settlement of the continent, Eastern elk were over-hunted, and without regulations or foresight, their numbers quickly dwindled. Human activity ruined habitat for what animals did remain. Soon, there were no more elk in the Appalachians.
On September 1, 1877, the last Eastern elk was shot and killed in Pennsylvania, and elk were gone from the east.
But on this cold December morning, more than a century later, the elk had indeed returned.
The prospect of returning a species to its historic habitat is a powerful one. It’s a chance for redemption. The restoration of a species, of an ecosystem, seems just and good. The earliest elk reintroduction occurred in Pennsylvania, in 1913, but was modest and slow to gain momentum. More recently, Kentucky has had great success, with conservative estimates claiming 10,000 elk now roam freely in that state’s eastern counties.
Previously, West Virginia’s DNR conducted a feasibility study for reintroducing elk in 1972. At that time, support was low, and the project was shelved. In 2005 a new study showed that attitudes had changed. “The people of southern West Virginia want to see this,” says WVDNR elk biologist Randy Kelley. In 2014, public meetings were held in the state’s coal fields, where a majority of residents, 75%, voiced support for the project. The DNR posted an online questionnaire asking if residents would want the DNR to pursue an active elk restoration program, and 93% of respondents said yes, according to Kelley.
“Most residents wanted to have elk for viewing, hunting or for the aesthetic pleasure of knowing elk are in West Virginia after years of absence,” states the WVDNR elk management plan.
But a truly wild elk herd would need not just support in spirit, but also thousands of acres of land to roam and mate and feed. As it turned out, West Virginia’s southern counties had accumulated a surplus of land that, through accident of industry, has proven to be ideal for Eastern elk restoration.
“The mine sites are there, and they’re not being utilized for anything when they’re post-mine land . . . So why not?”
A few months before the elk were released, I traveled to the newly created Tomblin Wildlife Management Area to tour the future elk habitat with Kelley, the DNR’s project manager for elk relocation. This site, comprising nearly 9,000 acres, was chosen because it contained preferred — and proven — habitat for elk reintroductions. Elk need successional habitat – the grasslands, shrubs, and forbs of a young, disturbed landscape. In a county that was 89% forested, Kelley says, this unforested habitat was rare. It wasn’t created by wildfire, or flooding, or even timbering. The elk habitat was an afterthought, created with explosives and massive earth movers, by blasting the tops off mountains in the pursuit of coal.
Indeed, the release-site for the state’s first elk herd in 150 years is an old mountaintop removal coal mine–blasted ridges; and valley fill, the waste product of strip mining wherein valleys are filled with the top of a mountain.
Creating elk habitat was not the intention of miners, to be sure. Coal companies disturb the earth to extract coal. And there are certainly less destructive methods that could be used to create successional habitat–through prescribed burning, for instance. But this vast, open acreage of mountaintop removal sites already exists.
“The mine sites are there, and they’re not being utilized for anything when they’re post-mine land,” says WVDNR commissioner Kenny Wilson. “So why not?”
And for some local residents, especially those working in the coal industry, this post-mining land use validates the belief that post-mining uses can be beneficial.
Phillip Adams, of Martin County, Kentucky, is a recently retired coal miner. Adams worked in the strip mine that became the Tomblin WMA. He was among the crowd that gathered to celebrate the elk’s release. Looking down from the ridgetop, he said, “In another 10 years, you’ll never know it was surface mined.”
While that might not be altogether true, if a blasted mountain cannot be entirely restored, then it’s the notion of environmental redemption, rather than restoration, that is finding credence in the elk project.
“For the people that work down here, it’s kind of vindication for those folks, a little bit,” Kelley of the DNR says. “Are there adverse impacts from mining? Oh, heck yeah. There’s all kinds of adverse impacts. And believe me, there’s nothing pretty about a surface mine in progress. [But] I think it goes a long ways to proving the case that through proper management—these are not ecological barren grounds.”
Scientists agree that the reintroduction – though laudable – doesn’t even the score.
J. Todd Petty, professor of wildlife and fisheries resources at West Virginia University, says a project like this “can be somewhat of a distraction from the negative aspects of mountaintop mining.”
“The negative impacts we know are impacts to water quality, and they’re lasting impacts to water quality,” he says. “So putting elk back on the landscape is not mitigating that.”
Michael Shawn Hendryx is a professor of environmental and occupational health at Indiana University Bloomington. His research has focused on health disparities for disadvantaged populations, and specifically the health disparities of people living in the coalfields of Appalachia. “It sounds nice to reintroduce elk into these mountains,” Hendryx wrote in an email, “but in my view that does not come close to justifying the environmental, economic, and public health harm caused by MTR.”
“You have to look at the whole picture,” Hendryx adds, “and not just what we do with the land after it’s done.”
According to a study conducted by Appalachian Voices, 574,000 acres (or 293 mountains) had been stripped for coal in Kentucky by 2009. That state’s elk restoration project, begun in the early 2000s, was the first to utilize former strip mines, and its runaway success has served as a model and inspiration for West Virginia.
“It’s not going to replace coal. . . . But every little piece helps, and you try to build a puzzle that maybe doesn’t include mining in the future.”
The project is about more than an attempt for ecological redemption. A number of civic leaders see the project as a chance to boost and diversify the local economy.
Diana Barnette, a local businesswoman, became involved with the newly created chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, an organization that has provided logistical and financial assistance for the elk project.
Barnette, who owns several local businesses and sits on the board for the Logan County Chamber of Commerce, views the elk as a cultural resource for the community. “Hunting is important in our heritage here,” she says. “These elk, they’re such majestic animals, and my grandchildren will be the ones that get to hunt those elk.”
“And I do see the value of the tourism dollar that’s going to come because of the elk,” Barnette adds. “Our economy is really bad right now, and all we’ve ever known is coal.”
In Kentucky, a recent economic study indicated that “elk hunting expenditures” brought the state between $5.6 and $6.5 million, according to the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.
“The impact that the elk herd has is year-round,” says Mark Marraccini, of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “The resurgence of wildlife in that part of the state has turned those communities into year-round tourist attractions.”
“[In West Virginia] it’s going to average somewhere around $1.5 to $2.5 million a year, per county…once the elk are all established,” Kelley says, “From just tourism. Without even mentioning [the revenue from] hunting.”
“It’s not going to replace coal,” Kelley continues. “We can’t generate that kind of revenue; nobody can. But every little piece helps, and you try to build a puzzle that maybe doesn’t include mining in the future.”
West Virginia’s elk program had the community’s support, they had land, and they would soon have elk. A month before their scheduled release, WVDNR personnel and volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation tranquilized and captured 24 elk in Kentucky, for transport to Logan County, where they would eventually become West Virginia’s new herd.
If and when the elk population grows to sustainable numbers, hunting permits will be issued. The opportunity to hunt elk in their native Eastern habitat was by and large the impetus for this project.
“Ultimately we want to give the opportunity for West Virginia sportsmen, or sportsmen in general, to apply and eventually hunt an elk in the East, in West Virginia,” Kelley says. “You can just imagine sitting up on these mountain tops on a foggy morning like this, and you can hear an elk bugle here, and just resonate up the valley. It just makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.”
According to Kelley, the new wildlife management area, Kelley’s salary, and the entire elk project is made possible by federal excise taxes that hunters pay on their hunting equipment. Organizations like the The Conservation Fund, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and Acres for America, among others, have made significant contributions to the elk project and have pieced together 32,000 acres for the effort. But tax revenue from the state’s hunters is also part of the pot of funds that’s bringing elk back to West Virginia. “Hunters are paying for this,” Kelley says.
While it’s true that overhunting — or commercial hunting, Kelley emphasizes — drove the eastern elk to extirpation it’s the modern sportsman’s desire to once again hunt them in West Virginia that has brought them back. “A hunter is not going to destroy a population,” Kelley says. “They want to continue to pursue them.”
Still, coexisting with large mammals poses challenges, both for humans and for the elk.
In the spring, prior to the elk’s release, flood waters in nearby Kanawha County damaged several communities. Prior human settlement, however, these same devastating events would have opened more habitat for elk. What’s beneficial to the elk, in this instance, is devastating to the communities in the river valley.
Going forward, landscape management will be necessary, Kelley says, because natural events like wildfire and seasonal flooding are suppressed. Selective timbering, among other methods, will be necessary to maintain suitable elk habitat.
Farms and elk — much like farms and deer — may also be in conflict. To minimize this, the WVDNR created their elk zone in the southern coalfields, away from the state’s large agricultural fields, and population densities. “We don’t have any agriculture down here to amount to anything,” Kelley says. “There’s no big soybean fields, or corn fields, or alfalfa fields in these southern counties.”
Another benefit to the southern coalfields was proximity to Kentucky’s booming elk herd. According to WVDNR’s official elk report, “Linking restoration areas in multiple states would recognize the mobile nature of elk and aid in natural population processes.”
“They [the elk] are definitely not a disappointment. They’re awesome.”
Brad Furrow is a hunter. On the day of the December 2016 release ceremony, he brought his 3-year-old son to witness the historic event. Furrow, an EMT with the Logan Ambulance Service, grew up in Logan County. He first heard rumors about the elk reintroduction when he was in high school.
“It always just seemed to be like a mythical rumor that elk would be here one day,” Furrow says. “Today’s the day after all these rumors. And they are definitely not a disappointment. They’re awesome.”
Furrow is also hopeful about the economic boost that elk tourism may bring. “I’m all about trying to bring people back to my hometown, my home state,” he says. “Anything that we can get.”
As a child, hunting with his father — a former coal miner who now works in land reclamation — was something Furrow always looked forward to. Now a father himself, Furrow is looking forward to taking his own kids hunting. “And now we’ve got something even more special to look forward to,” he says, “working our way up to such a beautiful, huge animal.”
It’s been a year since the elk were brought to West Virginia. When the elk were released last December, mating season had already passed, back in Kentucky. Some eight months later, this past June, a pair of elks gave birth to West Virginia’s first calves in well over a century
A few elk have died: two from relocation-related stress or trauma; one from a miscarriage; another, and her calf, from a vehicle collision. But with the two young calves the elk herd now numbers 21, and plans are now in the works to translocate several dozen elk from Arizona in early 2018.
Earlier this fall, the state’s new elk herd engaged in their annual rite–mating season. It appears that one mature bull elk, aged 5, dominated, and formed a harem. For two months then, in the hills of Logan County, a sound unheard for more than a century had returned to West Virginia–the bugle of an elk.
Andrew Moore is author of Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit, a cultural and natural history of the largest edible fruit native to the United States, and a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award nominee in the Writing & Literature category. He’s based in Pittsburgh and is currently focusing on plant and animal reintroductions.