- Associated Press - Saturday, June 7, 2014

VANSANT, Va. (AP) - Early on a Saturday morning, Leon Boyd navigated the twisting roads into the rocky countryside high above Grundy.

Boyd has hunted these hills and elsewhere since he was a boy but, on this morning, he was in search of something he’s never hunted in Virginia - elk - and he wanted nothing more than a glimpse. As the sun peeked over the ridges, Boyd was armed only with binoculars. He merely wanted to see the elk so he could show them to visitors before they - the elk, not the visitors - disappeared into the shelter of a thicket for most of the day.

Boyd, chairman of the Southwest Virginia Coalfields chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, is deeply involved as a volunteer in The Virginia Elk Restoration Project, a collaborative effort to bring elk - once native to Virginia - back to the commonwealth.

“I’ve enjoyed this more than any hunting I’ve ever done,” Boyd said. “The opportunity came up to be able to reintroduce them, and how many chances in your lifetime would you get a chance to be a part of that?”

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is overseeing the restoration project to establish a sustainable elk herd in Southwest Virginia. The agency released 16 elk on reclaimed mining land in Buchanan County in 2012, 10 the following year and an additional 45 in April, the last planned relocation of elk in the project. With calving, the herd could be over 100 by the end of June, said Allen Boynton, a terrestrial wildlife program manager with the agency.

Hundreds of years ago, elk ranged over most of Virginia, as far east as the fall line, Boynton said. However, elk were particularly susceptible to hunting, he said, and they were mostly gone from Virginia by the 1850s. Elk are fairly adaptable and can be found over large swaths of North America, but except for an occasional sighting of an elk in Virginia, attempts over the years to establish herds of wild elk in the state have failed.

This time around, however, using the success of elk restoration projects in Kentucky and other states as a guide, Virginia’s effort to bring back the elk seems to be working.

“We can’t restore every native species,” Boynton said, “but this is one we could.”

Off the main road, Boyd steered his truck along unpaved roads across mountaintop land that was surface-mined years ago but now is growing up thick in grass and clover, which elk love (and which was planted by the mining company that once tore coal from this mountain). With a ready food source, this reclaimed land was a good fit for the elk, which require about 20 pounds of forage a day.

An “Elk Crossing” sign stands as both a caution to adventurous motorists on the bumpy dirt path as well as something of a modest joke since the closest highway is nowhere near. The project’s official restoration area covers three counties - Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise - and 800,000 acres.

While elk certainly have the ability to roam widely and do and have splintered into smaller groups, many of these elk seem to stay relatively close to the area known as War Fork in Buchanan, where they were released after having been captured in Kentucky and quarantined for weeks to make certain they carried no diseases harmful to domestic livestock.

The elk don’t seem to have crossed a nearby gap to another mountain of reclaimed land where a community is under construction with substantial houses, a public park and incredible vistas that offer eyefuls of rolling mountains deep into the distance. Too much activity, Boynton said. “They’re wild,” he said, “and they’re shy.”

The state’s goal is to build and maintain a herd of about 400. So far, so good. The elk that have been released are collared and tracked, and only three have died: One bull was killed during a fight with another during mating season, another was found with injuries likely incurred during a fall or a fight, and a third succumbed to a common bacterial infection that did not affect other members of the herd.

In fact, disease was a primary reason Boynton and others originally opposed the restoration project. He feared the development of chronic wasting disease, a transmissible neurological disease, which has affected elk in the west. However, the disease never showed up in the herd established in eastern Kentucky in the 1990s, and Kentucky - with a herd of about 15,000 - has enjoyed success building its herd on reclaimed mine sites, so Boynton changed his view.

“I became more hopeful about managing elk in Virginia,” he said. “I knew that we had habitat in our coal-producing area of the state that was similar to the elk habitats in Kentucky. And as I started working with Kentucky to carry out the board’s decision to bring elk to Virginia, I learned more about elk and have become more convinced that we could manage an elk herd successfully.”

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