Return of the Wapiti | Volume 1, Part 1

Volume 1, Part 1

Return of the Wapiti

The Cove, core properties of the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation (in rural Halifax County, Virginia), is located on the southeastern fringe of the, now extinct, Eastern sub-species of the North American elk’s geographical range. As irregular visitors to that country, adolescent bulls, in wanderlust, likely etched hoof-prints in the soft, sandy soils of the bottomlands laying adjacent to the Staunton River. Antlers and ivories unearthed in geological digs of Native American campsites and burial grounds are tangible evidence of the animals’ existence. The plight of the elk is a genuine connection to America’s rich wildlife conservation history. The following is written as a tribute to the animal and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and those dedicated sportsmen who, through a cooperative effort, restored a missing component of autumn’s magic to parts of the Commonwealth – the great stags’ challenging bugles!

 

Elk – Yellowstone National Park

 

Virginia’s Elk History

Prior to European colonization, over 10 million elk roamed North America, at least that is the guesstimated number recognized by today’s biologists. Because of morphological differences in the species, the result of a continent-wide, geographical distribution and unique habitats, the binomial nomenclature (a can of taxonomical worms) of Cervus canadensis is further broken down into 6 distinct sub-species (an even bigger can). By 1900, total populations had been reduced to fewer than 100,000 animals with 2 of the 6 recognized subspecies extinct – the Eastern and Merriam’s.

Historically, elk were more common in the mountains and valleys in the western portion of the state, although herds were scattered across the rolling hills of the Piedmont. Unregulated sustenance hunting, market hunting, and habitat loss resulted in the extirpation of Virginia’s indigenous elk; the last recorded kill occurred in 1855, near Front Royal. Colonel Gos Tuley is credited with pulling the trigger! That taxidermy is still housed in the Smithsonian Institute.

Though long gone from the Old Dominion, places like Elkton, Elk Creek, Elk Hill, Elk Ridge, and many others, serve to remind us these large mammals once trod well-worn trails across steep passes in the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains.

Elk – Great Smokey Mountains National Park – North Carolina

First Attempt at Restoration

On June 17, 1916, landmark legislation was passed by the General Assembly that created an agency sworn to protect the state’s dwindling wildlife resources – the Virginia Game Commission. What the budding state agency lacked in knowledge and experience, it counteracted with resolve.

Because Yellowstone National Park had an overabundance of elk within its 2.3 million-acre boundary, the National Park Service began trapping and shipping surplus animals, by rail, to other states for restocking purposes. In 1917, the Game Commission obtained over 150 Rocky Mountain elk and released the ones that survived the grueling, 2,000-mile trip in 11 counties – mostly west of the Blue Ridge. Because research data to support the biologists’ work was non-existent, reintroduction was, more or less, a shot in the dark. Consequently, most of the releases were short-lived.

Within a couple years of the initial release, management concerns began to surface. Fish and game officials were getting an earful from disgruntled farmers and fruit growers over damages to fences, crops, and orchards. In 1922, with elk numbers on the rise, the agency instituted a 15-day hunting season to purposefully reduce populations as a means of addressing the associated issues. By 1926 only 2 herds were left in the Commonwealth – the one in Giles and Bland Counties; and another in Botetourt County. Because of increased pressure from hunters, the state obtained additional elk from Yellowstone in 1937 and released them into the two remaining herds. At its peak, the Bland/Giles herd was estimated to contain 125 animals; Botetourt’s herd, which relocated to the Peaks of Otter, in Bedford County (for various reasons), was nearly 100 strong.

Regardless of the Commission’s attempt to maintain elk populations for limited hunting opportunities, numbers began to decline. The last established hunting season was held in 1960. By the early 1970s, and for the second time in Virginia’s history, the elk were gone!

While the meningeal brain worm may have been one of the culprits, poaching and habitat limitations were primary factors in the elk’s demise. Many were lost to farmers who implemented the “Double S” method of control (shoot and shut up).

Eastern subspecies (cow) in open meadow.

 

In Memory of Friends

Kit Shaffer, longtime biologist and field coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and Dr. Dean, a crusty, old veterinarian from Bedford, discovered the last bull in the Bedford County herd, indisposed and fighting for his life – a mile east of the Peaks of Otter one snowy, winter morning in 1970. That bull’s antlers are still on display at the Bedford Museum. Gene Parker, supervisory park ranger and local elk expert, wrote his educational thesis about the elk at the Peaks of Otter. Those animals were a big part of his life! Kit (one of the founding members of the National Wild Turkey Federation), passed away at the ripe old age of 94, at the Elks National Home. Gene, on the other hand, departed this life much to young – at age 61. Missed by all who knew them, these two men were true conservationists who made a difference in Virginia’s wildlife resources.

Elk – Yellowstone National Park

 

Winds of Change

During the late 1990s, developing circumstances resulted in a resurgence of thought regarding elk restoration in Virginia. With increased public interest in elk hunting, and Kentucky initiating reintroduction efforts just across the state line, Virginia Tech conducted a feasibility study, which was financed by the VDGIF and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. This extensive study, focused on the biological, sociological, and economical effects associated with restoring the animals, was partially responsible for the VDGIF’s initial decision not to reintroduce elk back into Virginia.

With the study winding down, elk from the Kentucky project began wandering into Southwest Virginia; as predicted, the wapiti was once again roaming parts of the Commonwealth. The primary concern with the situation was disease, especially chronic wasting disease that was on the rise in parts of America and, somehow, making its way eastward. Biologists were rightfully concerned about the Bluegrass immigrants. To counteract, the agency permitted sportsmen to legally harvest elk on their Virginia deer licenses. After all, elk are a species of deer. But the action raised the ire of our Kentucky neighbors!

 

Hooves on the Ground

During 2009, the VDGIF’s Board of Directors recommended an elk restoration initiative. But do not think, for a moment, this proposal was all peaches and cream; the Virginia Farm Bureau, area landowners, and local farmers were adamantly opposed to releasing the large herbivores, and for obvious reasons. Even so, in 2010, the VDGIF approved the project. A year later, through a cooperative effort with other state and federal agencies (U.S. Department of Agriculture, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Kentucky Department of Agriculture, and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources), 16 very healthy elk were released in Buchanan County. Ironically, those animals had been captured in Kentucky, quarantined 90 days, and tested extensively for disease in holding pens constructed and used by the KDFWR. With 75 animals successfully transplanted by 2014, the capture/release portion of the program was deemed complete.

The established restoration area encompasses 800,000 acres in Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise Counties – ample space and habitat that meets the needs of the animals, and a location less problematic for farmers, landowners, and automobile operators. As a contingency, agency personnel continue to monitor the herd’s growth and overall health. All carcasses discovered are examined and tested for pathogens that could pose a potential threat to livestock and indigenous wildlife – especially white-tailed deer. To date, none have tested positive.

Along with abundant food resources provided by reclaimed strip-mine properties, the future looks bright for the 175 – 200 elk currently roaming that country – long as they do not stray outside the 3-county area where they are still legal targets for deer hunters. And more good news: David Kalb, Elk Project Leader for the VDGIF, says, “From what I have seen and heard, it (2017) has been a good calving season and cows appear to be in great health after a mild winter and productive spring growing season.”

Elk – Great Smokey Mountains National Park – North Carolina

The reintroduction of elk into Southwestern Virginia’s economically depressed region will be a topic of discussion, and argument, for many years to come. Even so, the existing herd’s future, along with the possibility of others, will depend on public opinion and a balance struck between economic benefits (revenue derived from sportsmen and wildlife watchers), and inevitable losses

incurred by farmers and landowners, and other domestic conflicts. Virginia Tech is currently gathering data from the general public (via telephone surveys), to assist the VDGIF in mapping plans for every future elk management scenario – including hunting.

The Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation’s Side of the Coin

This wildlife restoration story is near and dear to the hearts of those of us who work for the Ward Burton Wildlife Foundation. On a personal note, it was 54 years ago that I saw my first elk – 6 cows, walking single-file up a Bedford County mountainside; part of the Peaks of Otter herd. Influenced by the sight of those majestic creatures at the tender age of 13, visiting “real” elk country became one of life’s priorities that eventually came true for photography, hunting, and guiding. And never to be forgotten are those wonderful memories of working with Ron White and Wayne Gould to organize the Blue Ridge Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Roanoke. We raised the RMEF bar in Virginia!

Many Septembers ago I sat on the steps of a cabin in Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs talking to a silver-haired park ranger who helped load the elk onto the rail cars used to transport them from Montana to Virginia. There was a sparkle in the old gentleman’s eyes as he rubbed his Brittany’s head and shared the colorful details of the story. That happenstance conversation was an experience never to be forgotten!

Elk – Yellowstone National Park

 

Ward Burton played a direct and valuable role in Virginia’s elk restoration project. At the time, Ward was a VDGIF regional board member appointed by Governor Mark Warner. He remembers well the stiff opposition to the proposed project, especially the heated debates during public meetings. Burton also appropriated Foundation funding that supported the reintroduction of elk in Tennessee. He is quick to communicate the fact that The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has been a friend and staunch supporter of the WBWF for many years. And Ward loves that rugged, wild, elk country, too!

And speaking of elk, it’s almost autumn and the mountains are calling. Have a great day outdoors!

Mike Roberts

Elk – Yellowstone National Park