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NATURE NOTE - Number 81 November 28, 2023
I’ve written before about success stories wildlife managers have had in reestablishing, or increasing a species that had vanished, or almost vanished, from our area (see NATURE NOTE #30). These species range from the Bald Eagle to the white-tailed deer. Another species that has been reintroduced into an area not far to the west of the BRMC is…
Our Current Topic: Elk
Some sources say the last elk in Virginia was taken by hunters in 1855, although there were some elk in Bedford County and the Bland - Giles County area up until the 1970’s. At one time they were common in Virginia, as reported by Captain Merriweather Lewis, of Lewis and Clark fame, in the early 1800’s. Since their main habitat is grasslands, this means that much of the forested area of western Virginia contained open, prairie-like places that provided for the native population. An attempt was made in 1917 to restock elk by bringing in 125 animals from Yellowstone. Some of these animals survived, and were even hunted, through the 1960’s, but the last ones were seen in 1974. Keep in mind that wildlife management was in its early stages at that time, and as you might expect, the long-term reintroduction failed (see NATURE NOTE #8). Then in 2000, a new Elk Management Plan was developed by the state’s game management agency, known today as the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR). Jim Parkhurst, a Virginia Tech wildlife professor and Blacksburg scouter, was involved in developing that plan. After a long delay, this plan resulted in the release of 20 elk from an established herd in eastern Kentucky in 2012. The next year, 50 more were released. Today, that herd has expanded to over 250 animals in southwest Virginia. There are two herds, plus a few other scattered individuals, in Buchanan, Dickerson, and Wise County along the Kentucky-Virginia border. Most of these are on private property, including some on Nature Conservancy property. In 2022 the DWR was able to issue 6 permits for hunters of elk in the area. Over 30,000 hunters applied for the lottery that was used to award the permits. All six hunters succeeded in harvesting an elk. The DWR raised $500,000 from this lottery that can be used a variety of their programs for both game and non-game animals. But hunters are not the only folks interested in our elk. A thriving “elk watching” industry has developed in the Buchanan-Wise-Dickerson area. Grundy, Virginia, has named itself “The Elk Capital of Virginia” and is enjoying an up-tick in tourists that come to see the elk. All of this has been made possible by cooperation between DWR, landowners, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Southwest Virginia Sportsmen. This last group of hunters helps the DWR manage the herd. The Southern Gap Visitor’s Center in Buchanan County hosts a viewing shelter for visitors to use in observing the herds. Tours (reservations required) are offered during part of the year to take visitors deeper into the mountains to see something that has been missing from their native range for 150 years. A web camera is available (virginiawildlife.gov/elk-cam) to see these animals live in one of their primary locations. The best time for seeing these half-ton animals is early in the morning or in the evening between September to mid-November, or in late summer after the calving season. Interestingly, much of the land now providing those grasslands for the elk was formerly strip mines and leveled mountain-tops that provided coal. Topsoil was brought in and grass planted on these sites to re-establish the needed grasslands to support the elk. This area, formerly dependent on the coal industry for its economy, is now opening its doors to folks coming in to see the elk, eat, spend the night, buy gas, and enjoy a part of the world many of them have never seen before. This whole transition is a great example of how an area can benefit from nature when various organizations and land owners come together with a vision, an open mind, and planning. It’s not all doom and gloom in nature, but we need to work, and BE AWARE of what’s out there. That’s what NATURE NOTES is intended to do.
The trumpet-like sound of the bull elk has returned to Southwest Virginia, not too far from the BRMC. How would your scouts like to see elk in its native habitat? Would it be possible to combine a weekend camping trip to Camp Powhatan that included a 2 ½ hour side trip to Grundy? Think about it. If that can’t be arranged, the web-camera is a resource that might be used to allow scouts to see some nature that could not be seen a few short years ago. This is a good-news story that needs to be told. See what you can do.
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(The major source for this NATURE NOTE was the November/December 2023 of Virginia Wildlife, DWR’s publication.)