Elk roaming Northern Panhandle is captured
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wildlife biologists have captured the elk that had been wandering the hills of West Virginia's Northern Panhandle.
The elk, a mature bull that escaped last year from a Pennsylvania captive deer facility, was tranquilized in rural Marshall County Feb. 9 and transported to the West Virginia Wildlife Center at French Creek.
"The elk is being well cared for," said Paul Johansen, the agency's assistant wildlife chief. "We're not sure when or if it will be introduced into the large enclosure where the other elk are kept, though."
Division of Natural Resources officials had worried that the elk might have spread bovine tuberculosis, brucellosis or chronic wasting disease to domestic livestock or wild deer in the area where it had been roaming. Those fears were at least partly allayed after a blood test proved the animal wasn't carrying tuberculosis or brucellosis.
There is no live-animal test for chronic wasting disease, so DNR administrators have ordered the elk to be kept in isolation at the Wildlife Center for the time being.
West Virginians became aware of the elk early last fall, when it showed up near the Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area in Wetzel County. DNR investigators determined that the animal had escaped from a high-fence deer preserve in Greene County, Pa.
The elk wandered back into Pennsylvania and stayed there during the holidays, but reappeared a few weeks ago in Marshall County. Local residents flocked to watch the animal graze near a busy highway.
DNR officials wanted to kill the elk because they feared it might be diseased, but put their plans on hold after their intentions came to light and people started to protest.
Johansen said the creature's capture accomplishes two things: It prevents a potentially diseased animal from interacting further with wild deer or with livestock, and it places the elk in a place where it eventually might be put on public display.
"There is still some concern about chronic wasting disease," he added. "Animals that carry the disease can go years before starting to show symptoms. That's one of the reasons we're keeping the elk isolated."
Subsequent checks with authorities in Pennsylvania revealed that the captive-deer facility the elk escaped from had been certified that it was free of the disease.
DNR officials had hoped to ship the animal back to its owner, but Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture and Pennsylvania Game Commission officials refused to allow it.
"I think it was probably because we have chronic wasting disease here in West Virginia, even though our CWD containment zone is more than 100 miles from where the elk was roaming around," Johansen said.
Biologists from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources performed the actual capture. Johansen said Kentucky has a large elk population and biologists there are used to tranquilizing and capturing the animals, which can weigh as much as 700 pounds.
"They also have a [tranquilizing] drug that we don't have," Johansen added. "They were able to dart the elk and get it ready for transport a lot faster than we could have."
A U.S. Department of Agriculture official took blood samples from the elk and tested the samples for bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. Both tests turned up negative.
The elk was loaded into a horse trailer for its trip to the Wildlife Center. Johansen said it appears to have recovered from being sedated and is settling into life in a 2-acre holding pen in a nonpublic area of the facility.
"Right now, it's not available for public viewing," he said. "At some point it might be, provided we can introduce it without causing conflict with the bull in the main elk enclosure. The last thing we want is to put this animal in the enclosure and have them start fighting. Mature bull elk can severely injure or even kill one another with their antlers. We certainly wouldn't want that to happen."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.