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Print

Southwest Va. to take in more Ky. elk in May

April 20, 2013 at 09:12 PM

The Associated Press


RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Southwest Virginia will see its second delivery of elk in May under a pilot program to introduce the Rocky Mountain version of a native species that was last seen in the state around the time of the Civil War.

One year ago, 16 elk were moved from southeastern Kentucky across the state line to Virginia's Buchanan County in the first installment of what eventually could be hundreds of elk roaming the state's far southwest coal country. That initial number has grown to 24 with the arrival of eight calves.

In late May, approximately the same number of elk will arrive from Kentucky, which began reintroducing them in 1997. They now number more than 10,000.

Kentucky's experience hasn't been conflict free. Some residents have complained of wayward elk trampling gardens and causing car crashes. A bull elk can weigh in at 700 to 800 pounds, much larger than native deer that range from 150 to 200 pounds.

In Virginia, wildlife officials say the experiment has gone smoothly, but they're proceeding with caution.

"We have gone slowly on this," said Allen Boynton of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. "We'll see how it goes, see what public support is like and public reaction and demonstrate our capability to manage the animals that is a benefit to the community."

In 2014, up to 75 elk will be released in Virginia with the goal of increasing the herd to 400 animals in eight to 10 years, said Boynton, the department's terrestrial wildlife manager.

Elk have actually been in the state in the 150 years since the Civil War. An estimated 50 have wandered over from Kentucky in recent years.

The department is partnering with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Buchanan County to return elk to three counties: Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise.

The transplanted elk primarily graze atop a 2,300-foot reclaimed strip mine, the same manmade habitat that is used in Kentucky. It's their travels off the mountains that have stirred complaints.

In Virginia, Boynton said, the elk "have pretty much stayed in the area where we released them."

In Virginia, the program was opposed by the Virginia Farm Bureau, the state veterinarian and the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. They cited the possible spread of disease to livestock, damage to fences and elk munching fruit in orchards.

A spokeswoman for the agriculture department said that remains its position.

"We have worked cooperatively with DGIF management to devise the best health plan we can to protect our livestock from elk that are imported into Virginia," Elaine Lidholm said in an email. "We continue to have the same concerns as before about diseases threats from wild elk populations."

The Farm Bureau's Wilmer Stoneman III said the position of the state's largest farm lobby is unchanged. Since the arrival of the first elk from Kentucky, "We've been cautiously and quietly watching," said Stoneman, associate director of governmental relations for the federation. He said he was not aware of any documented elk-farmer conflicts.

Boynton said the Kentucky elk are quarantined for 90 days once they arrive in Virginia and undergo a round of testing for a number of diseases.

Sportsmen's groups and some officials in economically depressed southwest Virginia promoted the program to bring elk back to the state. Native elk were hunted into extinction.

While the program is intended to return a native species, wildlife officials also envision other future benefits, including hunting and viewing by visitors. No elk hunting is now allowed in the three counties.

Asked about the chances of seeing an elk now, Boynton said the long haul to southwest Virginia wouldn't be worth it. "There's just so few," he said.

___

Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap


Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.

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