After more than a century’s absence, elk will soon be roaming across West Virginia once again. The state’s Department of Natural Resources received approval Friday from the U.S. Forest Service to take 20 elk from Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area and transplant them to West Virginia.
According to West Virginia Metro News, the elk—ten bulls and ten cows—will be moved to Logan County’s Tomblin Wildlife Management Area to recover from their lengthy trip. Following that they will be released and allowed to roam wherever they choose.
West Virginia originally hoped to acquire elk from eastern Kentucky, right across the state line, but those elk were already spoken for in other reintroduction efforts. The Mountain State may eventually get some of those elk, but for now western Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes herd will act as the seed stock.
“Originally they came from Elk Island National Park in Canada and they’ve been down there for a while,” said Chris Ryan, a biologist with West Virginia’s DNR. “They’ve been used to stock elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and the Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee. They’ve been used as a ‘seed source’ for a couple of different areas.”
Testing for diseases like chronic wasting disease will take place before the elk are moved across state lines, putting their arrival sometime in December or early January. Additional stocking efforts are already expected for the future.
Elk were once plentiful in West Virginia, as they were across most of the Lower 48. Their numbers steadily declined when Europeans arrived on the continent, continued to dwindle into the 1800s, and by 1875 were completely extirpated from the state. A reintroduction effort was attempted in 1913 with 50 elk taken from Yellowstone National Park, but the herd never established itself.
The idea of reintroduction was revisited in 1972. Following the successes of Pennsylvania’s and Virginia’s herds, West Virginia conducted a feasibility study to test whether conditions were adequate for elk to return. At that time the state determined there wasn’t adequate habitat to support the herd, competition from other species and the risk of disease were too high, and the potential for crop damage to surrounding farmland was too risky.