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Both sides of the elk stocking controversy

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Elk have become a bit of a controversial subject in West Virginia.

Some hunters are clamoring for the Division of Natural Resources to launch an elk-stocking program. Opponents are concerned that reintroducing such large animals might cause unforeseen impacts.

It's interesting, then, that two bordering states are experiencing each side of the coin.

Maryland wildlife officials just finished a public-opinion survey that showed strong support for the stocking of elk in Garrett and Allegany counties.

The study, done by arguably the most respected outdoors-related opinion research firm in the country, revealed that 72 percent of Marylanders would like to see elk reintroduced to the Old Line State.

Interestingly, only 68 percent of the people who live in Garrett and Allegany counties want the reintroduction to happen.

The survey suggested that elk-based tourism would generate close to $3.1 million a year.

My friend Mike Sawyers, who writes for the Cumberland Times-News, reported that wildlife officials haven't yet determined whether the region contains suitable habitat for such large critters.

As a whole, though, it appears folks in Maryland are getting all het up about having elk.

Not everyone is as enamored of the idea.

Just outside the opposite border of West Virginia, citizens of eastern Kentucky have quite literally taken up arms to thin out an elk herd that's making their lives miserable.

For the past three years, Kentucky wildlife officials have allowed residents in the Stoney Fork area to shoot and kill elk that come down from the mountains, trample lawns, tear up shrubbery and get hit by cars.

Elk were reintroduced into eastern Kentucky in 1997. In just 15 years, the state's herd has grown to more than 10,000, all confined into roughly a 15-county area.

The animals' presence has been a boon to tourism, and carefully managed elk hunts have attracted sportsmen from throughout the country. In at least a few areas, though, the 500- to 700-pound creatures have become overpopulated.

Stoney Fork is sort of the poster child for elk problems. Residents grew so upset that state wildlife officials began issuing depredation permits, much the same as West Virginia issues deer-damage permits.

People are particularly worried about elk-vehicle collisions. Hitting a 110-pound deer with a car can cause thousands of dollars' worth of vehicle damage. Hitting a 600-pound elk can total a car in no time.

According to an Associated Press report, more than 100 Kentucky elk have been killed in deer-vehicle collisions since 2005. Pickup trucks have been flipped upside-down from the impacts. The AP report contained an account of a bull elk crashing through the windshield of a Geo Metro.

There is no doubt that a thriving elk herd in West Virginia would help the state's coalfield counties to attract more tourists and hunters.

There is also no doubt that if elk become abundant enough, problems similar to those in Stoney Fork would eventually arise. A magnificent 7-by-7 bull elk in the wild is a stirring sight; the same critter frozen in the headlights of your car is downright terrifying.

DNR officials want to allow the state's elk herd to build naturally, with animals that migrate across the border from Kentucky and Virginia. Would-be elk hunters want a stocking program.

Whatever happens, the ultimate result will likely be a combination of good and bad. But isn't that the way it goes with just about everything?

Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or johnmccoy@wvgazette.com.

 


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