Elk in Virginia

elk lived throughout Virginia, west of the Fall Line, in 1600
elk lived throughout Virginia, west of the Fall Line, in 1600
Map source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

area occupied by elk in Virginia between 1855-2012: none
area occupied by elk in Virginia between 1855-2012: none
Map source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

elk were re-introduced to Buchanan County in 2012-2014
elk were re-introduced to Buchanan County in 2012-2014
Map source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Elk (Cervus elaphus) once grazed in Virginia east to the Fall Line, but the last native elk was killed in Virginia in 1855. The original subspecies (Cervus elaphus canadensis) disappeared from Virginia and from other eastern states for two reasons:
1) hunters killed mature elk for hides and meat faster than the animals could reproduce
2) elk lost winter grazing habitat, as valley bottomlands were converted into farms and ranches

place names such as Elk Island in Goochland County offer a clue about the historical range of elk in Virginia
place names such as Elk Island in Goochland County offer a clue about the historical range of elk in Virginia
Source: Library of Congress, A map of the most inhabited part of Virginia

The last elk in Virginia was killed in Clarke County before the Civil War, and for nearly 60 years there were no elk living naturally in the state. No elk survived in neighboring states either, so there was no natural migration back into Virginia. Reintroducing elk required capturing the animals west of the Mississippi River, and shipping them east.

Between 1913-1922, elk were imported and released in Augusta, Bath, Botetourt, Cumberland, Giles, Montgomery, Princess Anne, Pulaski, Roanoke, Rockbridge, Rockingham, Russell, Warren, and Washington counties. Most releases occurred in 1917, when the state imported 125 Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park. The elk released in the sand dunes near Cape Henry discovered the local vegetable farms, so the herd in Princess Anne County (now the City of Virginia Beach) was destroyed soon after release. By 1922, there were none left in Cumberland County either, but elk did expand their range into Bland, Craig, and Bedford counties.1

despite reintroduction in Princess Anne and Cumberland counties, the only population of elk to survive east of the Blue Ridge after 1926 was in Bedford County (where elk migrated across the mountains)
despite reintroduction in Princess Anne and Cumberland counties, the only population of elk to survive east of the Blue Ridge after 1926 was in Bedford County (where elk migrated across the mountains)
Map source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Public support for controlled hunting seasons increased in the 20th Century, but poaching and over-hunting affected the first elk restoration effort that started in the early 1900's. Five years after the 1917 re-introduction, the Virginia Game Commission authorized elk hunts. Re-introduction was intended to create hunting opportunities for recreation, but it was also permitted to accommodate farmers upset at crop damage.

In the 1600's, elk could graze in the summer on mountain ridges and winter in the valley bottoms, and long-distance migrations were not necessary. By the 1900's, the habitat on the ridges was still available, but the valley bottoms had been converted into farms and ranches. The lack of winter grazing habitat, plus excessive poaching, resulted in disappearance of the elk imported by the Virginia Game Commission except in two locations.

After 1926, only the two herds in Giles/Bland and in Botetourt/Bedford counties survived in the wild. To supplement their populations in 1935, more elk were imported from Yellowstone National Park.

The state stopped authorizing elk hunting in 1960, but by 1970 wild elk had disappeared again from Virginia. Efforts to re-introduce elk prior to 1980 to other eastern states also failed; only Michigan and Pennsylvania managed to establish herds.2

In addition to the elk brought to Virginia by the Virginia Game Commission for release into the wild, the wealthy owner of Bellwood Farms south of Richmond imported a pair of elk at the same time. The resulting novelty herd became a popular tourist attraction in central Virginia, and still remains there despite conversion of the farm into a warehouse/distribution center at the start of World War II.

The family sold the farm to the US Army in 1941 so it could create Bellwood Depot - officially, "Defense Supply Center Richmond" - but only after getting a commitment to maintain the herd. Today, the US military is still maintaining 7-10 elk there. There have also been other private herds, such as one owned by entertainer Arthur Godfrey north of Leesburg from the late 1940's-1979, but none have lasted as long as the Bellwood elk.3

in 1953, the Saturday Evening Post highlighted The Elk That Joined the Army at Bellwood Depot
in 1953, the Saturday Evening Post highlighted "The Elk That Joined the Army" at Bellwood Depot
Source: Defense Supply Agency, The Bellwood Elk

most states, like Virginia, failed to reintroduce elk successfully prior to 1980
most states, like Virginia, failed to reintroduce elk successfully prior to 1980
Map source: US Geological Survey (USGS), National Atlas

For almost 30 years there were no wild elk in Virginia. Starting in the 1990's, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation initiated the current efforts to re-introduce elk to eastern states. Between 1997-2002, with funding provided by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission released 1,500 elk on the Cumberland Plateau of eastern Kentucky.

The Kentucky herd grew faster than expected, and biologists discovered that the Rocky Mountain subspecies had sufficient resistance to the meningeal worms ("brainworm" parasites) that are endemic among white-tailed deer in the eastern states. There were few natural predators (hunting was not authorized for the first four years after re-introduction), and winters were mild compared to the western states where the elk had been captured. Reclaimed coal strip mines created artificially-fragmented forests with grass-covered fields that offered extensive grazing habitat, plus early-succession"edge habitat" providing shrub/tree branches for wintertime grazing.

Perhaps most importantly, owners of the old coal mines supported re-introduction. Habitat was better on the other side of the state, but the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission considered concerns of the Kentucky Farm Bureau as well as biological factors when choosing where to reintroduce the species:4

There were some dandy places in western Kentucky where elk would work... but there was too much farmland that elk could damage, and the residents would never accept them. The only area that looked suitable was southeastern Kentucky.

As the Kentucky elk population began to expand, some "interstate elk" began to wander into Virginia. The first one traveled to Grundy in 1998, just a year after the initial reintroduction in Kentucky. After efforts to trap and re-locate it back to Kentucky failed, that animal was killed. Ranchers and farmers in southwestern Virginia feared elk would introduce disease to local cattle herds and destroy haystacks, so the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries authorized hunting elk as if they were deer, to prevent a population from growing until a reintroduction policy was adopted.5

Kentucky selected 16 counties for its elk restoration zone, and ignored objections from Virginia that releases would be too close to the border
Kentucky selected 16 counties for its elk restoration zone, and ignored objections from Virginia that releases would be too close to the border
Map source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

A Masters thesis by Julie A. McClafferty at Virginia Tech, completed in 2000, created a Habitat Suitability Index (HSI) model and identified eight places in Virginia with biological potential for establishing self-sustaining elk herds. That study screened the state to find areas with least 120,000 acres of suitable habitat with a minimal number of 4-lane highways, because traffic on Virginia roads would block elk normal migration between summer/winter range.6

With the encouragement of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, in 2010 the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries explored three main alternatives for elk management:
- "no action" (allowing elk to walk across the Kentucky-Virginia border and naturally reintroduce themselves, but with no objective of maintaining a stable population)
- "passive restoration" (allowing natural migration, but with a population goal of 1,200 elk)
- various forms of "active restoration" (involving capture of elk and release in Virginia at locations where one or more herds could be maintained)

of eight locations identified in 2000 as suitable habitat biologically, only southwestern Virginia was suitable sociologically
of eight locations identified in 2000 as suitable habitat biologically, only southwestern Virginia was suitable sociologically
Source: Julie A. McClafferty, Location and physiographic relationship of potential elk habitat study sites in Virginia (Figure 2-7)

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries supported active restoration, releasing 200 elk per year for three years to establish a single herd that would expand naturally to 1,200 animals. Though southwestern Virginia did not rank the highest on the Habitat Suitability Index (the Highland study site was most feasible), the state determined that a free-ranging elk population would not be suitable outside of the Appalachian Plateau counties adjacent to Kentucky. Farmland was minimal there, and hunting and wildlife-viewing tourism was predicted to bring some economic benefits to a region of the state that traditionally struggled to provide enough jobs to retain its graduating students.

As the state described the choices:7

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.

Virginia officials considered reintroducing elk in counties on the Appalachian Plateau counties (green) and in the Valley and Ridge (yellow)
Virginia officials considered reintroducing elk in counties on the Appalachian Plateau counties (green) and in the Valley and Ridge (yellow)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

When the state proposed in 2010 to bring elk into Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise, opposition from the Virginia Farm Bureau was clear. Farmers feared damage by elk pushing through fences, eating hay, and introducing tuberculosis or brucellosis (a disease that causes cows to abort) into local cattle herds. Though Bedford County was far from the proposed release site, the agricultural economic development committee there got the Bedford Board of County Supervisors to oppose any elk re-introduction far away in southwestern Virginia.

In 2010, the headline above a Bluefield Daily Telegraph story was "Supervisors: Elk unwelcome in Tazewell." A farmer in Tazewell County (who was far more likely than any Bedford County farmer to be impacted by the elk) said:8

Elk will eat our hay, go through our fences, give our animals diseases and eat our grass in times of drought. That grass is for our cattle to eat — not elk.

After Wise and Dickenson county officials joined the opposition, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries determined that only 75 elk would be released, the final population goal was lowered from 1,200 to 400 animals, and elk would be reintroduced in only Buchanan County. Between 2012-2014, Virginia successfully trapped 70 elk in Kentucky and released them all near Vansant in Buchanan County.

In its effort to expand the number of elk in the county and create economic benefits from wildlife-watching tourism, in 2007 Buchanan County established a local ban on hunting elk despite state objections. Once elk were reintroduced, the state wildlife agency banned elk hunting in Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise.9

Elk Garden Creek in Russell County, where elk once grazed
Elk Garden Creek in Russell County, where elk once grazed
(NOTE: the jurisdiction south of Russell County is Washington County, not the city of Bristol)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

An effort to expand the ban and end elk hunting in Tazewell, Lee, Russell and Scott counties failed in 2013. Farmers successfully advocated for continuing the opportunity to hunt elk during deer season, with each elk counting towards the bag limit for deer. County supervisors in Tazewell, Lee, Russell and Scott counties had opposed the original reintroduction plan in 2010, and considered the proposed ban on elk hunting to be a "back door" expansion of the reintroduction effort.10

Hunting of the elk in Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise counties will be permitted once the population reaches the goal of 400. By 2014, the original 70 imported elk had grown to 90, thanks to the birth of 20 calves that summer.11

The Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission charged $550 for a Bull Elk Permit in 2014, but the small size of the herd in Virginia - and the limited amount of public land open to hunting in the area where the elk live - will limit the income that the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries could generate from elk hunting fees. Most economic benefits from reintroduction will come from tourists who spend money in Buchanan County on meals, motels, and gasoline while visiting to see the elk, rather than to hunt them.

Buchanan County was the only jurisdiction in southwestern Virginia to support reintroduction of elk
Buchanan County was the only jurisdiction in southwestern Virginia to support reintroduction of elk
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Links

modern technology allows tracking the movements of elk that were relocated from Kentucky to Virginia
modern technology allows tracking the movements of elk that were relocated from Kentucky to Virginia
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Elk with Monitoring Collar

References

1. "Elk Restoration and Management Options for Southwest Virginia," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, June 2010, pp.2-4, http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/wildlife/elk/management-plan/elk-restoration-and-management-options-for-southwest-virginia.pdf; "Virginia Gets More Elk, Holdover Bull Takes Immediate Notice," Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, June 1, 2013, http://rmefblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/virginia-gets-more-elk-holdover-bull.html (last checked June 2, 2014)
2. Julie A. McClafferty, "An Assessment of the Biological and Socioeconomic Feasibility of Elk Restoration in Virginia," Masters Thesis, Virginia Tech, 2000, p.2, p.4, http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/theses/available/etd-02212000-13240008/ (last checked June 2, 2014)
3. "Answer Man: Herd of Arthur Godfrey?," The Washington Post, May 3, 2004, p.C11; "The Bellwood Elk," Defense Logistics Agency, 2013, http://www.aviation.dla.mil/userweb/pao/elk/elk.htm (last checked June 2, 2014)
4. "The Elk Decade," Kentucky Afield, Winter 2007, p.23, http://fw.ky.gov/Hunt/Documents/KAwinter07elkhistory.pdf (last checked June 6, 2014)
5. David S. Maehr, Roy Grimes, Jeffery L. Larkin, "Initiating Elk Restoration:The Kentucky Case Study," Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Southeast Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Vol. 53 (1999), p.358, http://seafwa.org//resource/dynamic/private/PDF/MAEHR-350-363.pdf 6. Julie A. McClafferty, "An Assessment of the Biological and Socioeconomic Feasibility of Elk Restoration in Virginia," pp.9-10
7. "Elk Restoration and Management Options for Southwest Virginia," Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, June 2010, p.v, p.vi, p.5
8. "Bedford County leaders oppose elk restoration plan," Lynchburg News & Advance, July 23, 2010, http://www.wsls.com/story/20821036/bedford-county-leaders-oppose-elk-restoration-plan; "State to reintroduce elk in Buchanan," Virginia Farm Bureau, August 19, 2010, http://vafarmbureau.org/NewsVideo/NewsHeadlines/tabid/347/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/152/State_to_reintroduce_elk_in_Buchanan.aspx; "Supervisors: Elk unwelcome in Tazewell," Bluefield Daily-Telegraph, August 4, 2010, http://www.bdtonline.com/news/local_news/article_3e4bdd63-51de-5bd5-b503-af750facf0ef.html (last checked June 6, 2014)
9. "Virginia Officials Butt Heads Over Kentucky Elk," Appalachian Voices, April 25, 2007, http://appvoices.org/2007/04/25/2891/ (last checked June 6, 2014)
10. "Board supports proposal to continue open elk season in Tazewell County," Bluefield Daily Telegraph, May 9, 2013, http://www.bdtonline.com/local/x2002143721/Board-supports-proposal-to-continue-open-elk-season-in-Tazewell-County (last checked June 6, 2014)
11. "Buchanan County Virginia’s elk herd growing in size, popularity," Bristol Herald-Courier, September 7, 2014, http://www.tricities.com/news/article_517a00ee-3705-11e4-8e39-001a4bcf6878.html (last checked September 8, 2014)
tourists in Buchanan County may hear male elk bugle during the mating season in September/October
tourists in Buchanan County may hear male elk bugle during the mating season in September/October
Source: National Park Service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Elk

elk with antlers covered in velvet
elk with antlers covered in velvet
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Elk in Velvet


Deer in Virginia
Habitats and Species of Virginia
Virginia Places