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Gov. Tomblin voices support for elk stocking

West Virginia's governor created quite a stir last week when he said he'd like to see elk stocked in the state's southwestern counties.

Speaking at a "Sportsmen for Tomblin" campaign rally, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said that since elk have already started migrating into the state from Kentucky, wildlife officials should "take a serious look" into an active reintroduction plan.

Keep in mind that this is an election year, and politicians sometimes try to score votes by saying things they don't mean. But if Tomblin is serious about it, West Virginia could have elk in sufficient numbers to hunt years sooner than they otherwise would have.

Until now, Division of Natural Resources officials have chosen to manage the state's small elk population "passively." What that means is that they will try to protect any animals that wander into the state, but won't engage in an active stocking program.

By the DNR's own estimates, it would take 20 years or more for passive management to create an elk herd dense enough to support hunting.

Kentucky developed a viable elk population in just five years.

Between 1997 and 2002, Kentucky wildlife officials stocked more than 1,500 elk in 16 of the commonwealth's southeastern counties. They thrived. By 2009, Kentucky's elk herd had already reached wildlife officials' 10,000-animal goal.

Curtis Taylor, the DNR's wildlife chief, said several issues would need to be addressed before West Virginia attempted an approach similar to Kentucky's.

"Obviously, we would need to know where the money would come from," Taylor said. "When Kentucky stocked elk, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was a major contributor. I don't think they're currently in a position to fund such a strong elk restoration program in West Virginia."

Kentucky gets part of its elk-program operating costs from non-refundable "license application fees" charged to sportsmen who apply for elk-hunting permits.

"We're currently not allowed to do that," Taylor said. "The Legislature would need to change the law before we could start collecting application fees."

Securing land where sportsmen could hunt for elk is another issue.

"If we're going to spend hunting- and fishing-license money on [elk], we will have to guarantee that the public will have access to them. I have heard there are land-holding companies agreeable [to allowing free access], and that's good news, but we'll need to get solid, long-term commitments," Taylor said.

A few years back, the DNR got burned on a similar situation. A mining company that earlier had agreed to allow access to wild-boar hunters was sold, and the company that bought the land chose not to honor the agreement.

"If we're going to invest a lot of money and sweat in elk, we definitely don't want that to happen again," Taylor said.

Then there's the question of where to obtain disease-free elk. Chronic wasting disease has never been detected in Kentucky's herd, and Taylor said he'd be more comfortable obtaining animals from Kentucky than from anywhere else, but still would worry.

"Until there's a live test for CWD, you just can't be 100 percent sure," he said.

Taylor acknowledged that Tomblin's support for an elk program could go a long way toward making one actually happen.

"If Curtis Taylor had gone to the Legislature asking to stock elk, I would have been stopped in my tracks," Taylor said. "In my opinion, having [support from] the governor's office and the leadership of the Legislature would make it a lot easier to get things done."


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