A long time ago, right where I am standing in what is now southwestern West Virginia, Logan County, there were herds of wapiti. (WAH-PA-TI) We are told that is what the Shawnee Indians called them; we call them elk. The wapiti have been gone for a long time, but now they are back. (Photo above: WV ELK PROJECT JAKE WIMMER)
The wapiti have been gone for a long time, but now they are back.
Randy Kelley is a Wildlife Biologist with the West Virginia Division of Resources (WVDNR) and he basically lives with the elk. Randy has been the Elk Project Leader since it started in 2015, and he has seen a lot happen. In 2016 the WVDNR received 24 elk from the Land Between the Lakes area (LBL) in western Kentucky,12 females (cows), and 12 bulls, the males. These elk were released onto the Earl Ray Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan County, an area of over 25,000 acres.
Anyone who has ever dealt with the capture and transportation of large wild animals knows this was a no walk in the park.
In 2018, WVNDR staff and Arizona wildlife biologists undertook a huge task and captured 60 wild elk, 50 cows and 10 bulls, and transported them back to the Mountain State. Anyone who has ever dealt with the capture and transportation of large wild animals knows this was a no walk in the park. This involved helicopters, guns that fire nets, and a lot of wrestling with large animals that know how to use their hooves. The Arizona elk had to undergo a lengthy quarantine period due to federal regulations and some of the elk died due to the stress of transportation and captivity. Later in 2018, an additional 15 elk were transported from the LBL in Kentucky.
The Arizona elk came from a dry and arid region and may have had no exposure to brain worm before…
After the Arizona elk were finally released, the new West Virginia herd seemed to be doing well, but in 2019 the elk received a blow due to an insidious little parasite known as the brain worm. Biologists tell us the brain worm is common among whitetail deer and the deer have built up a resistance to it. The brainworm eggs are transferred by snails and slugs which are picked up by the grazing elk. 2019 was a wet year and this compounded the snail problem which transferred more of the brain worm eggs to the elk. The Arizona elk came from a dry and arid region and may have had no exposure to brain worm before, the biologists with Randy Kelley on the elk project estimate as much as one-third of Arizona elk succumbed to the brain worm infestation.
WV ELK PROJECT. L-R-RANDY KELLEY, KYLIE OLIVER, ERIC RICHMOND, ROGER WOLFE, JAKE WIMMER.
This day I am visiting Randy Kelley and his fellow biologists, technicians, and managers as they are involved in the work of replacing the GPS collars on the elk so that they may keep track of them in their daily wandering. Although elk are related to the deer found here, I am told they certainly have different habits and may wander widely, much more widely than their smaller cousin. So, the satellite GPS (Global Positioning System) collars are vital to keeping up with the elk’s whereabouts. Some of the collars from the originally stocked elk need replacing and there are young elk that have been born here, so they need a collar too.
A tranquilizer dart is fired, and the elk is soon on the ground so the biologists can do their work quickly and replace the collar.
The elk are captured by baiting them in with alfalfa hay, corn, and other elk goodies and a biologist hides in a blind built for this purpose. A tranquilizer dart is fired, and the elk is soon on the ground so the biologists can do their work quickly and replace the collar.
I ride to the blind with Randy Kelley and Wildlife Technician Jake Wimmer. Randy loads avery impressive-looking CO2-powered dart gun, puts on scent-proof camo, as a bowhunter would do, and disappears into the blind. Jake puts out more feed and we are back in the truck headed to the staging area to wait with the rest of the crew, about a mile away. “It’s a waiting game, just like hunting,” Jake tells me. “All we can do is sit and be patient, and hope the elk come in, they may, or they may not.” The afternoon sun is warm, and after a long winter, we are all enjoying it. The talk is interesting to me, as always in a group of wildlife professionals who have good stories to tell. Someone produces a new bass rod and reel and starts casting up and down the muddy road to try it out. The sun feels great, and life is good
The radio crackles and I can hear the excitement in Randy Kelly’s voice, “We’ve got an elk down, get over here!” I jump in a truck, so I won’t get left behind and we are off. A few minutes later I am looking at a beautiful young bull elk and the DNR guys and one lady leap into action. It is obvious they know their job and they want this to go quickly and get the elk back on his feet. I try to stay out of the way and take pictures while some gather various data, blood samples are taken, and a collar is placed on the young bull. Randy injects the drug to wake the bull up and I am told to get out of the way.
In a few minutes, the elk is on his feet and although a little groggy starts to walkaway. He stops about 20 yards out and gives us the classic look, and then wanders off into the brush. I watch him go and wish him well. I hope he lives to grow a monstrous 7×7 rack and sire many calves for the herd. It will be awhile, but within a few years, there will be some lucky hunters that get to hunt these elk in the West Virginia mountains. That is good, and I wish them luck, but I also want the elk to grow and prosper here so that my children and grandchildren can hear the bugle of the wapiti in these mountains once again.