The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ has prepared a draft plan recommending that a population of 1,200 elk be established in three southwestern counties, and that plan remains open for public comment until Aug. 1.
Virginia’s elk restoration and management plan can be viewed online in its entirety, and comments can be submitted online at the bottom of the page.
While five options for elk reintroduction were considered by the department’s Elk Committee, the committee has recommended that the state pursue active restoration by stocking 200 elk over a three-year period in Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties. Virginia plans to eventually hold an elk hunting season and estimates 480 elk could be harvested during the first 12 years of reintroduction, during which time the state would reach its ultimate objective of 1,200 elk.
Elk were once a native species in Virginia, but they were extirpated from the commonwealth in the 1800s. Early elk restoration projects occurred in Virginia in 1913, 1917, 1922 and 1935, but these efforts were unsuccessful, largely due to a lack of knowledge of elk habitat requirements.
Other Eastern states have undertaken successful reintroduction efforts, including the neighboring state of Kentucky, which has an elk herd of more than 10,000 animals. Virginia currently has an unknown population of elk that have migrated into its borders from Kentucky, and restoration would supplement that herd. Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina also have sustainable elk herds.
In addition to hunting opportunities, the benefits of elk restoration are many. According to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which supports Virginia’s elk restoration framework, every state that has restored elk in the last 15 years has experienced an increase in tourism dollars thanks to elk hunting and elk watching. The emphasis on protecting and enhancing habitat for elk also has positive benefits for other species and hunting opportunities.
In addition, if the restoration is given final approval and elk hunting begins, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries will see added revenue from license sales and application fees, while local businesses will see an increase in their revenues due to expenditures by hunters both during the hunting season and the pre-hunt scouting activities.
It is true that elk can be a problem with agricultural interests in the form of damage to fields and fences, and the current plan addresses those issues through a damage stamp program that would compensate landowners for damage caused by elk.
Of concern to hunters is the impact elk would have on Virginia’s other big-game species, most notably whitetail deer. Based on the experience of elk restoration projects in other states, elk reintroduction has not disrupted whitetail deer behavior or habitat use patterns, nor has it disrupted deer hunting, as deer and elk have very little dietary overlap and are not usually directly compete for forage.
Virginia will proceed with its restoration plan as long as there is strong public support for it. Please take a few minutes of your time to review the plan and send your comments to the department. Comments for the public record should be submitted in writing online or mailed to the department (c/o Wildlife Division – Elk Plan, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 4010 W. Broad Street, Richmond, VA 23230). The public comment period will run through Aug. 1, 2010.