BUCHANAN CO, Va. – When you think of elk – if you think of them at all – you might picture the big mountains of the American west. The Rockies. The Tetons. Montana. Yellowstone Park.
It may be surprising then that Elk are taking hold in eastern states like Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, and even Virginia.
A member of the deer family, larger than white-tailed deer, but smaller than moose, Elk are majestic creatures. This is especially true of the bulls whose antlers dwarf those of their white-tailed cousins.
“Elk are a native species to North America. So, a lot of people think about them as a western species. But they were native to all-over North America. When Europeans got here they would’ve been all over the place,” said Jackie Rosenberger a game biologist in charge of managing the Virginia herd for the State Department of Wildlife Resources.
“In fact, it was estimated that there were more elk than whitetail deer at the time when Europeans were arriving on the continent,” Rosenberger added.
Except for a couple of short-lived attempts to re-establish the elk herd in Virginia, there hadn’t been any in the Commonwealth until 10 years ago, when the state released 75 at a reclaimed coal mine in Buchanan County.
Even then it was controversial.
“It’s my understanding that the main concern with agriculture is disease because there are diseases that cattle and elk can share,” Rosenberger said.
Success in Kentucky and Tennessee opened the door in far southwest Virginia in counties where less than 6 percent of the land is used for farming.
“This is ground zero for the release,” said Austin Bradley, Superintendent of Breaks Interstate Park, located on the Virginia-Kentucky border. Bradley points to a reclaimed coal mine in Buchanan County, where several dozen elk can be seen grazing in a field.
It was here that the elk were released in Virginia and the place where many have stayed. A fact that is not surprising to those who know the animal’s tendencies.
“Elk habitat is really centered on reclaimed mine land. So, there’s two main components of elk habitat. It’s open fields kind of grasslands, early successional type areas that they like to feed in. But they need that in close association with forest land,” Rosenberger said.
From the original 75 Elk, the herd has grown to 250 plus.
“We’ve got about 200 in Buchanan County. In about 50 or so down in Wise County and there are some elk that are spread out in other counties as well and southwest Virginia,” Rosenberger explained.
Biologists consider this a success story.
It’s a far cry from the estimated 13,000 elk in Kentucky, but that has never been the goal in Virginia.
Nor is it the goal to see elk all over the Commonwealth.
The plan is to keep them essentially in coal country.
“The ultimate goal is just to keep growing the population. Until we have kind of maxed out or are approaching maxing out the space we have available for them, but to be honest with you we’re really not even close to that. We’ve got a lot of land within our management zone, which is Buchanan, Dickinson, and Wise Counties that aren’t being utilized by elk,” she said.
And it appears people like the elk, as much as the Elk like Virginia. Elk bus tours that originate at Breaks Park have grown steadily in popularity over the last decade and are sold out through the end of 2022.
“Over the course of the last 10 years what we have seen is that the tours had become so popular that we had to get a 32-passenger bus a few years ago,” Badley said.
Elk are a big draw. And others have found a way to leverage this newfound natural resource into tourist dollars.
“If it hadn’t been for the elk this building wouldn’t be here. We wouldn’t have tried to do it,” said Billie Campbell who owns and operates Southern Gap Outdoor Adventure. The small resort features cabins, camping, and a lodge. Thirty-five thousand out of staters came here last year to see the elk.
“The elk have been a tremendous draw for our area. We’ve got other sites in southwest Virginia that do ATV riding of that kind of thing, but elk have been our one-off that we can say that we’re different from everyone,” Campbell said. “They’re all free-ranging but they’re very predictable. So, we’ve actually got some of them known by name.”
People from all fifty states, and six countries have come to Southern Gap to see the Elk – one of the few places you can regularly view them without being on a bus tour.
Despite amazing scenery, hiking, and attractions such as a zip line, it’s the Elk that are the star attraction at Breaks, even though they are not on the Park’s property.
“The elk viewing tours are the most highly rated activity that we have on TripAdvisor - all of our online reviews. Just constant mentions of the experience of the elk tours,” Bradley said.
And the chances of seeing an elk on the tour are better than good.
“Over the course of 10 years so far we have a 100% success rate for viewing elk on every single tour that we’ve ever taken,” he said.
Though the elk are there year-round, the best show is in the fall, when dominant males round up the cows into groups. It is also in the fall when the males let out a low mournful sounding howl known as bugling.
“Once you hear it, you never forget it,” Campbell said.
Rosenberger said that when mountain tops were removed to mine the coal, a side effect was that it created flat spaces in an otherwise steep landscape, creating perfect elk habitat.
And plenty of it.
“We can manipulate their numbers through hunting mostly. But we can also manipulate where we want them to go through habitat management. And so, there’s really good elk habitat here. So, these elk would be crazy to move off of this and go to these neighboring counties that are not being specifically managed for them,” Rosenberger said.
Re-introduced animals on reclaimed land. A growing success story in southwest Virginia.