Elk Management and Restoration
Since the 1990’s, public interest to restore elk in Virginia has increased. In response to this public interest and neighboring states which have undertaken elk restoration programs, the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries directed the Executive Director of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF) to create an operational plan for elk restoration and management in Virginia. This plan addresses the potential for elk restoration and management in Virginia through consideration of biological, sociological, economic, and environmental issues.
Elk were historically found throughout eastern North America, including Virginia. However, factors such as habitat loss and unregulated hunting caused elk to become extirpated within eastern North America by the late 1800s. Attempts at elk restoration in eastern states during the early to mid-1900’s often failed due to a lack of suitable habitat and knowledge of elk ecology. Of the 10 eastern states attempting elk restoration during this time, only Pennsylvania and Michigan were able to maintain elk populations. In 1916, the newly-created Virginia Game Commission authorized the importation and release of elk in 11 counties in Virginia, but most releases quickly failed. By 1926, only 2 small elk herds remained: one in the mountains of Giles and Bland counties and one in Botetourt County near Buchanan. Elk hunting seasons were held irregularly from 1922 – 1960, but by 1970, elk once again were gone from Virginia. Factors such as disease, unsustainable harvest levels, removal of crop-depredating elk, and isolation of small, unsustainable herds on limited ranges contributed to the elk’s demise. Currently, an unknown number of elk occur in Virginia having moved in to the state following their release in Kentucky during the late 1990’s. Initial attempts to capture and return elk to Kentucky proved impractical so an elk hunting season was approved to keep elk from becoming established in Virginia.
Restoring and maintaining elk populations provides ecological, social, and economic benefits. Hunting and wildlife viewing annually generate millions of dollars to local and state economies. In Virginia, hunting and wildlife viewing activities were estimated to have had a $1.4 billion impact on Virginia’s economy during 2006. Further, elk may play a significant role in maintaining early successional habitat conditions which have been in decline over the past several decades. Elk generate some concerns due to the potential for damage, nuisance behavior, and disease transmission. Agricultural damage may be related to foraging and trampling of crops, destruction of fences, and competition for hay or pasturage. Other types of damage or nuisance activity include browsing or antler rubbing on timber resources, vehicle collisions, residential damage and habituation to humans. Important wildlife and livestock diseases may be carried and transmitted by elk including Chronic Wasting Disease, Brucellosis, and Bovine Tuberculosis, necessitating careful disease testing and monitoring during restoration efforts.
The area under consideration for possible elk restoration included Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties within the Cumberland Plateau (i.e., Coalfields) and Lee, Russell, Scott, and Tazewell counties in the Valley and Ridge province. While these two physiographic provinces are similar in some ways, differences in topography, geology and vegetative cover are significant. The Cumberland Plateau is rugged and the extraction of mineral resources has altered the landscape. The Valley and Ridge is characterized by long parallel ridges separated by corresponding river valleys. These wider valleys and floodplains are better suited for agriculture. According to the 2007 USDA agricultural census, the 3 Coalfield counties contain a combined 45,842 acres of farmland, much lower than the Virginia average of 82,693 acres per county. However, the counties of Lee, Russell, Scott, and Tazewell contain an average of 144,222 acres of farmland, nearly 10 times that of the coalfield counties. The prevailing agricultural land use of the Valley and Ridge counties precludes their management for elk due to potential damage to agricultural property. The Coalfield counties of Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise offer the best potential for elk restoration in Virginia as habitats associated with surface mining can provide suitable elk habitat while minimizing impacts to agricultural lands.
At its August 17, 2010 meeting, the Board of Game and Inland Fisheries approved a motion where VDGIF would establish a pilot program for the reintroduction of elk by stocking not more than 75 elk in Buchanan County only. The goal would be to have an elk herd not to exceed 400 animals. The elk management area would include Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties where elk hunting would be prohibited. Hunting of elk would begin in Buchanan County within 4 years of the last elk stocking. A reserve of 20% of elk hunting tags would be held back for hunters or applicants from Buchanan County. VDGIF would organize and coordinate activities of a damage response team made up of representatives from the management area, local chapter of RMEF and DGIF, with a goal to respond to damage calls within 24 hours.
Active restoration options offer the best alternatives to achieve recreational and economic benefits associated with elk populations. However, public awareness and support of active elk restoration management efforts are vital to a successful elk restoration program. Elk management issues such as regulation of hunting and hunter access, provisions for suitable habitat, opportunities for elk viewing, and mitigation of damage/nuisance issues will require careful attention to public attitudes and interest. Emphasis should be placed on obtaining public input and educating citizens on elk ecology and management issues. These education and outreach efforts should be sustainable in order to continually address public interest as well as emerging elk management issues.