Creative Commons via Pixabay.

WISE — For most people, spotting an elk in the wild sparks excitement and awe. 

That’s especially so in southwestern Virginia, where elk have only recently been reintroduced after an absence of more than 150 years. 

For farmers and cattlemen, however, the sight of elk inspires something else: fear and dread.

“If they are allowed to multiply, which it appears they are going to be, it could really be devastating to the farmers,” said Robby Robbins, a Wise County supervisor who runs a herd of cattle. “One of those things is as big as a cow. They get into your fields, it’s just like turning your cows into a hay field: They destroy it. It makes it harder for a farmer to make a living.”

Virginia’s elk population is relatively small, but Robbins said it already has created problems for several regional farmers, including one who was establishing a blueberry patch near the town of Pound, only to see it “devastated” by elk.

“It really poses a problem,” Robbins said. “It’s really great if you do have wildlife like that that’s visible, but you have to weigh the economic advantages both ways. The economics are just not in favor of the small-time farmer being able to take care of it,” referring to the eight- to 10-foot fencing required to keep elk out of a pasture or crop field.

An “elk crossing” sign at a former mine site near Grundy in Southwest Virginia. (Mason Adams for the Virginia Mercury)

Elk once roamed the Appalachian countryside, but the eastern population was driven to extinction by the arrival of European settlers and the over-hunting and habitat loss that resulted. The last eastern elk was killed in the 1870s. The close of the 20th century, however, saw a surge of interest in elk reintroduction. Kentucky began elk restoration in 1999, and Rocky Mountain elk now roam in five central Appalachian states, including Virginia.

Virginia reintroduced elk between 2012 and 2014, although its southwestern counties were seeing elk crossing the border from Kentucky and Tennessee before that.

The initial restoration included 75 animals, and the population has grown to nearly 250 animals today. They’re concentrated mostly on a roughly 2,600-acre, restored surface mine site outside Grundy. That site is largely flat and covered not with forest but with grasses and scrub shrubs, and it’s actively managed by the Vansant-based Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

‘What good is it?’

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries named Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties as its “elk management zone,” a targeted area in which the population is managed. Buchanan has embraced the elk, but the boards of supervisors in Dickenson and Wise both passed resolutions opposing the reintroduction. The Wise County Board of Supervisors reiterated its opposition in April, when it passed another resolution opposing the county’s inclusion in the elk management zone.

“We seem to be the dumping grounds for about everything Virginia wants to do,” Robbins complained. “We don’t have the population where we can fight it. What good is it when we do put up opposition and the Board of Supervisors votes against it, and it’s ignored? That’s what happened. DGIF ignored the will of the local governing body.”

The DGIF approved a new 10-year management plan for the elk on March 21, which includes no additional reintroductions for at least the next decade. The plan also notes that opposition to elk restoration dates back to before the initial introduction, including during a 2010 comment period. 

“All counties except Buchanan County and Scott County had concerns and indicated opposition to the restoration of elk in their county,” according to the plan. “The majority (78%) of comments received from the public favored some form of restoration, but positions on elk restoration were highly polarized.”

The report identifies continued opposition ever since. David Kalb, the DGIF’s elk project leader, said the agency is committed to working to “be mindful of the agricultural communities and some of the conflicts that can arise from elk” and to actively minimize and mitigate those conflicts.

“We understand that there are people in both Dickenson and Wise counties that are not supportive of the elk program,” Kalb said. “Those counties are the best counties biologically that we could have an elk restoration and elk population in, given their lack of the high density agricultural operations we see in some other counties. We know elk are not going to do well in the Shenandoah Valley because there’s a huge density of cultivated row crops. The elk will get in conflicts immediately.”

By comparison, Kalb said, very little of southwestern Virginia land is used for agricultural operations.

“There are some, and that’s where we’ll have land conflicts and that’s where people are upset, but the vast majority of land is subject to uses other than row crops and cattle operations,” Kalb said. Instead, “there are huge swaths devoted to mining, mine reclamation and restoration of mine lands that have created ideal elk habitat.”

‘Really sad’

Elk hunting isn’t allowed in the three counties that make up the management zone. Elsewhere, elk can be harvested on a deer tag. Because the restored population is concentrated within the elk management zone, the policy means that hunters who do harvest elk almost certainly are taking animals who have wandered across the state line from elsewhere.

Ultimately, the plan is to eventually allow hunting of the reintroduced population, likely through a lottery system for elk tags, as is done in other states. In Kentucky, which has an elk population of more than 10,000 animals, about $3.6 million was spent on hunting and scouting in the state’s 16-county elk zone, and another $800,000 on licenses and permits, in 2013 according to a study.

“Within the elk management zone, we are working on a harvest management plan to design a plan to get hunting within that zone when it’s feasible and biologically sound,” Kalb said. “We’re working towards getting an elk tag, but we don’t know exactly how it will work out.”

Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, carried a bill in the 2019 General Assembly to kickstart the process of creating an elk hunting tag, with a provision for setting aside a portion of the revenue for compensating landowners for agricultural damage. 

“I’d never do anything to hurt agriculture,” Morefield said. “In my discussions with the majority of farmers, they were not overly opposed to introduction of elk. They had some concerns about crop damage and spread of disease. My response was, don’t deer create crop damage and spread disease? And we have an overpopulation of deer. That’s why we set aside a portion of the funding toward crop damage.”

The bill passed the House of Delegates on an 84-14 vote, but it ran into trouble in the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee, where it died on a unanimous vote. 

“The (Virginia) Farm Bureau decided to officially take a position to oppose it, which was frustrating to me,” Morefield said. “We had a gentleman’s agreement that they would not oppose the bill. That’s why I spent a considerable amount of time trying to negotiate a reasonable proposal for them. But the Farm Bureau officially opposed it and discussed it with members of the Senate agriculture committee, and ultimately the bill did not pass.”

Stefanie Kitchen, legislative specialist for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, wouldn’t talk about the legislative fight, saying, “there’s really not too much of a story there.”

“We’re looking forward to the implementation of the [DGIF’s elk] plan and successful management of the herd,” Kitchen said. “It’s important for all stakeholders to be involved in all these conversations.”

As for Dickenson and Wise counties, Morefield said that he hopes the boards in each reconsider their opposition.

“The economic situation in Wise and the other coalfield counties has worsened substantially in the past 10 years,” Morefield said. “The population alone has decreased substantially. It’s important to closely consider any opportunity to further diversify the economy. To say we’re opposed to an animal that was here well before this land was inhabited by humans is really sad, especially when you have people working in good faith efforts to do everything we can to make the coalfields unique from other areas of the country to actually get people to come back here.”

Robbins, the Wise County supervisor and cattleman, remains skeptical. 

“They give you all of this wildlife, which is supposed to be good for you and it turns out to be detrimental,” Robbin said.

“If you’re working with wildlife, that becomes your major concern. That’s what you want to do, to see produced. But you’ve got to accommodate other people in other parts of the economy other than tourism. If you include forestry in with agriculture, that’s probably one of the largest things that we have left in southwest Virginia.

“I think the big story here is the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries not listening to local governments,” Robbins said. “They say that their goal is to listen to what’s going on and do the will of the local governments. They’re not doing it.”