- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 19, 2001

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries doesn't come right out and say so, but every hunter in the state knows that Virginia doesn't mind one bit and even surreptitiously encourages the shooting of elk that have been wandering into the Old Dominion from Kentucky. Why? Virginia biologists fear the huge animals will bring disease into the Commonwealth. Elk hunting is perfectly legal. You can shoot one as long as the state's regular deer season is open and you're on land where hunting is permitted.
From his Richmond office, Bill Woodfin, the director of the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, says, "With the dialogue that has developed because of the hunting of elk in our state, we would like to provide some factual background information on the issue, as well as clarify some misperceptions that have been reported.
"The issue of elk in Virginia is not a new one, and as a matter of fact the Department had an elk-stocking program in the early 1900s. The last legal elk from this restocking program was harvested in 1960. By most accounts, this early restocking program was not successful. Elk did not propagate as was expected, and diseases unique to elk and deer surfaced. While there can be many causes for the failure of our own restocking program in the first half of the 20th century, many people questioned whether Virginia had a sustainable habitat for elk.
"Recently, there has been interest in the restocking of elk in eastern states. Pennsylvania has had a program for a number of years, and Kentucky started restocking elk in 1998. Virginia has been tracking the activity within these states, but has not been directly involved in any of their restocking programs. We have had a continuous dialogue with national groups such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) in order to understand the dynamics involved in a 21st century elk restocking program.
"At our suggestion, the RMEF funded a study through Virginia Tech to evaluate what factors would have to be considered if elk were stocked in Virginia. This study identified issues such as human interaction, agricultural damage, disease transmission and suitable habitat. While a number of geographical locations within the state were evaluated, the area identified as the most suitable habitat was a portion of the state bordering West Virginia in the area of Highland and Bath Counties. West Virginia has recently embarked on a similar evaluation study, and we are awaiting the results of their study to determine if it confirms the appropriate geographical habitat that Virginia Tech identified.
"It is not surprising that we have seen a migration into Virginia of elk that were stocked in Kentucky. While Kentucky had no substantive or active discussions with us about to how such a migration would be handled, they were open about their stocking program within Kentucky. Several years ago it was determined that during any legal deer season it would be legal to take elk in Virginia since they are both cervids [members of the deer family]. Our most recent regulation change simply expanded the harvest of elk to include either sex of elk during any deer season."
Meanwhile, those elk in Pennsylvania The first elk hunting season in Pennsylvania was conducted low-key but was a success as hunters took 27 of the large animals. The first elk season in seven decades had 30 license holders going after the gigantic "deer." Of the 27, eight antlered and seven antlerless elk were shot in Elk County, with six antlered and six antlerless elk taken in Cameron County. The season was held Nov. 12-17.
"Saying that this year's elk hunt was successful is an understatement," noted Game Commission Executive Director Vern Ross during a visit to the elk check station in the Moshannon State Forest. "Hunters did a fantastic job of collecting the various samples such as blood, tissue and organs which we requested of them. This new data will enhance the volume of information we have gathered over the years about the health of our state's elk herd.
Pennsylvania, by the way, has not voiced any fears about the elk spreading disease among themselves and smaller whitetailed deer. Maybe Virginia needs to study the Keystoners' program.

Look for Gene Mueller's Outdoors column every Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, only in The Washington Times. E-mail: [email protected]

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