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Elk on the way?

John McCoy
The sight of a 6-by-6 bull elk bedded in a field isn't something West Virginians are accustomed to seeing, but that might change. State officials are considering an elk-stocking program that could result in a population large enough for hunting.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia wildlife officials say an elk-stocking program could begin within two to three years.

But before elk hunters start jumping up and down in celebration, one rather substantial hurdle needs to be cleared - finding enough open-to-the-public land to house hundreds of the 500- to 700-pound animals.

"The consensus is that we need 25,000 to 30,000 acres, because elk will move to adapt to changing food and weather conditions," said Frank Jezioro, director of the state Division of Natural Resources.

Two areas currently are under consideration. One, which encompasses a sizable portion of the state's southwestern coalfields, already has at least a few elk. The other, which would encompass a pair of high-altitude wilderness areas in Tucker and Grant counties, does not.

Jezioro said both areas were identified in the state's 2002 elk feasibility study, and both have pros and cons.

Southwestern W.Va.

The coalfields, for example, has the advantage of already having an elk population - or, at least, elk are sometimes seen there. Biologists believe most of the animals being seen are young bulls that have migrated across the Tug River from neighboring Kentucky.

The jury is still out as to whether they're staying. Last year, DNR personnel placed trail cameras at several sites in Mingo and Logan counties, but not a single elk showed up in the cameras' photos.

In response to the repeated elk incursions, DNR officials created an "elk management zone" in all of Mingo, Logan, McDowell and Wyoming counties, and in portions of Boone, Lincoln and Wayne.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who advocates an elk-stocking program, has said he'd like to see such stockings take place in the coalfield counties. Jezioro said the main sticking point with a coalfields-based stocking effort is the region's relative lack of public land.

"Before we could stock there, we would need to find one or more timber companies, coal companies or land-holding companies that would be willing to sign an agreement to allow elk to be stocked on their lands, and to allow public access to the land for elk viewing or elk hunting," he explained.

"And the access would have to be guaranteed somehow. When we stocked wild boar [along the Logan-Boone line in the 1970s], we had a signed agreement with a coal company to allow hunter access. But when the company changed hands, the new company's lawyers decided not to allow access. We couldn't afford to have that happen with something as important as an elk-stocking program."

Kenny Wilson, who represents the coalfields area on the state Natural Resources Commission, said officials for several companies have voiced at least verbal support.

"I've talked with people from several large companies, and they're in agreement to bring [elk] in," Wilson said. "These are large companies, and they control large tracts of land."

So far, however, no formal agreements are in place, and Jezioro believes no elk should be moved until company executives sign legally binding agreements.

North-Central W.Va.

The Tucker-Grant county elk zone wouldn't require corporate cooperation, but it might force state officials to untangle a pile of government red tape. The areas under consideration for elk stockings include the Dolly Sods and Roaring Plains portions of the federally owned Monongahela National Forest.

Combined, the two areas encompass approximately 32,000 acres, three-quarters of which is federally designated wilderness.

Stocking elk there would require the DNR to generate an environmental impact statement, traditionally a time-consuming task. The statement would then require federal approval, which could take months or, in a worst-case scenario, years.

Jezioro believes, however, that the process wouldn't be nearly that lengthy.

"Elk were native to the area, and there's never been any objections to hunting [in the National Forest]," he said.

Placing elk in the National Forest also might, however, draw objections from farmers in the nearby North Fork and South Branch valleys. Elk can carry brucellosis and bovine tuberculosis, both of which can be transmitted to cattle.

Funding

After DNR officials clear all the potential legal and sociological hurdles, the actual mechanics of stocking elk must be considered.

Funding shouldn't be much of a problem, at least at first. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has issued grants to help pay for stockings in several eastern states. Bill Carman, the foundation's regional director for Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, said similar funding should be available for the Mountain State's reintroduction program.

"We've been giving $300,000 to eastern states," he explained. "That should be enough to establish an initial herd of about 50 animals."

The key, he added, is timing. The idea is to capture female elk shortly after the mating season. "Then, after the elk are stocked, the cows have their calves and you end up with an even bigger starter herd."

Getting the elk

Finding a source for the elk might be problematic. Then again, it might not. Curtis Taylor, the DNR's wildlife chief, believes the best place to acquire elk would be from neighboring Kentucky, which has more elk than it needs.

"They're right next door," Taylor said. "But getting those elk quickly might be a different story.

"The Kentucky Game Commission will only authorize 50 elk a year to be exported from the state. Right now it looks like Missouri, Virginia and Wisconsin are in the queue ahead of us.

"We are in the queue, though. I know [Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commissioner] John Gassett very well. He asked if we wanted a "placeholder," and I told him yes. The ultimate decision will come from the commission, but I think they might be willing to send some elk to a neighboring state."

Taylor added that once the details are worked out, DNR wildlife personnel would fairly quickly be ready to oversee a stocking program.

"Our staff has the expertise to release and manage elk, no doubt about it," he said.

Paying for it

The initial RMEF funding would run out fairly quickly, though, and after that the DNR would need to find a way to pay for an elk-management program. Kentucky pays for its program by charging $10 non-refundable elk-license application fees, and by charging $30 for resident elk permits and $365 for non-resident elk permits.

West Virginia does not yet have the legal means to collect application fees, nor does it have the ability to charge for special elk licenses. Taylor said the Legislature would need to pass laws authorizing the DNR to do those things.

"I have copies of all of Kentucky's legislation, so we know exactly what has to happen legislatively to have a program like theirs," he added.

Timetable

Elk proponents would like to begin stocking elk as soon as possible. Commissioner Wilson, who hails from Logan County, believes it could happen as quickly as next year.

Taylor and Jezioro aren't as optimistic.

"I don't know [how quickly a stocking program could be put in place]," Taylor said. "That's a good question. The answer lies with Kentucky, because that's the source. We could be all in favor of releasing elk, but if we don't have a source, we aren't stocking."

Jezioro believes a two-year timetable is realistic.

"Let's say that in the next six months we can find a place to put the elk and get an agreement," he said. "It probably would take another six to eight months to get some elk; so we're probably looking at two years.

"But we have something moving here. With the governor's backing, it's only a matter of time before we get rolling."

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


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