West Virginia Elk Restoration Gets Boost from Arizona

60 elk to be relocated from Arizona highlands to reclaimed mine areas

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

By Mark Carter

West Virginia wildlife officials are partnering with Arizona to relocate 60 elk to the state, two years after reintroducing elk for the first time in 140 years.

Elk restoration by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources began in 2016 with the introduction of 24 Kentucky elk to reclaimed mine areas in Logan County in the southern part of the state, and round two of the process is set to begin next spring.

The Arizona Game and Fish Commission recently approved the capture of five dozen elk in the Arizona highlands to be transported to West Virginia in early 2018.

Plans call for the elk to be captured between January and March using safe trapping methods including helicopters. More Arizona elk could follow if the restoration project proves successful.

“The action the commission took was to allow for the transfer of 60 animals this coming season,” Paul Johansen, chief of wildlife for WVDNR, told WV Metro News. “With the option to potentially, depending on how their source animals are doing and how those animals do when they get to West Virginia, consider future translocation efforts.”

Post-capture, the elk will be held in quarantine in Arizona and tested for disease, then transported to West Virginia by a professional livestock hauling company. The elk's new home will be the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan County, where they will join the original elk relocated from Kentucky.

“This is an exciting time as we continue our efforts to restore this magnificent species that once was native to our state but disappeared more than a century ago,” Johansen said. “We are very happy to be working with our colleagues at the Arizona Game and Fish Department to make this happen. I am confident they share our enthusiasm for this project.”

Arizona elk like these will help bolster the reintroduction of elk to West Virginia. (WVDNR)

West Virginia initiated its first elk reintroduction study in the 1970s and in 2005, with the help of a $4 million grant from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, WVDNR launched a feasibility study that ultimately led to the relocation of 24 Kentucky elk.

Kentucky's own elk reintroduction began in 1997 and was successful; its elk population currently sits at roughly 11,000. Although a 1913 introduction in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, of 50 elk from Yellowstone National Park by the Allegheny Sportsmen’s Association proved unsuccessful, officials are optimistic that this reintroduction will stick. 

"The feasibility study completed in 2005 identified several multi-county regions in West Virginia which could support elk based upon habitat conditions," wrote Gary Foster for WVDNR. "The Southern Coal Fields Region, however, was selected as the most suitable restoration area due to its close proximity to Kentucky’s elk restoration area and its potential for a passive management approach, as well as its relatively low potential for human/elk conflicts."

Elk historically were common across the eastern U.S., providing a source of food, shelter and clothing for Native Americans and early European settlers. But many factors including subsistence and market hunting as well as timbering lead to declining numbers throughout the 1800s.

The last known sighting of native elk in West Virginia was recorded in 1875. But evidence of its original distribution is scattered throughout the state in numerous place names such as Elk River and Elk Fork Lake.

Of course, hunters will have to wait for the state's first elk season. Designated a big game species by WVDNR, elk currently is protected in the state. Officials plan to reintroduce the animal over the next several years with future relocation sites including Wyoming and McDowell counties. 

More information about the state's restoration and management plans is available here.