Politics Play a Key Role in Virginia Elk Reintroduction Plan
Johnny Wills from the VDGIF is head of the management program for Virginia’s elk herd, spoke on behalf of the Virginia Elk Reintroduction project. He explained that although Virginia is now void of the large ungulates, during the 1900’s elk still ranged throughout the entirety of the Eastern United States, only to be hunted to extirpation. A one sided discussion with a lengthy background noted several attempts for past elk reintroduction in Virginia. Wills explained the “Peaks of Otter region once saw a small congregation of elk in the 1960’s, but were soon culled to extirpation when farmers took matters into their own hands.” Several of Virginia’s neighboring states have seen successful transplants of western elk herds into their former region of the Appalachians. The Cades Cove elk herd of Kentucky and Tennessee has flourished since their introduction in 2001 to a healthy population of around 15,000 individuals.
The plan for Virginia’s new elk herd is already in conception, but it seems to lack logic in the management of the species. After a study on the feasibility of elk in Virginia’s environment, Julie A. McClafferty and James A. Parkhurst discovered that the prime habitat to support the large grazers would be Virginia’s Allegheny and Piedmont regions. “Biologically, the facts are sound, but politically the areas are off limits.” Johnny Wills has narrowed the search for elk habitat to the far western part of Virginia, in what he deems the coal counties; Buchanan, Wise, Lee and Dickenson. These counties in particular have a low population density, and large remaining tracts of forest. The counties are eager to have the elk herd in their district, but there are possible problems to face if reintroduction occurs.
While elk herds on forest land and designated elk reservations is fine in the public eye, the problem lies in the migratory behavior of the species. If the elk turn up in a suburban town stead, the imposing animals can create danger for people and browsing landscaped yards, becoming an immediate nuisance. In the western states during the mating season for elk, males are known to walk through towns, oblivious to cars and people alike. Farmers, however have a different reason to protest the introduction of elk. In the coal counties, elk could outcompete livestock, consuming the grass that the cattle have to eat. Being free ranging animals, elk could wander into a farmer’s hay field, and consume the season’s feed supply for the farmer’s livestock.
A more serious implication with wild species introduction is the possibility of contagious disease transfer to livestock. Two diseases are known in ungulates like elk and white tail deer, and could have dangerous implications for wild and domestic animals alike. Chronic wasting disease is a degenerative disease which afflicts white tail deer in Virginia, and could be transmitted to elk. Bovine Tuberculosis is a more severe threat to the cattle farmers around the commonwealth. If an elk with bovine TB infects domestic cattle, our state could lose its TB free standing.
Elk impact on humans will be more direct than through competition with cattle. Deer already cost citizens $ 5 million a year due to deer related accidents, introduction of elk would only increase these statistics. When the elk migrate out of the forest and happen across a suburban backyard the conflict with humans increase. The overabundance of white tail deer already costs the Virginia homeowner a sum of $290 a year just because of deer. It’s already a consensus that there needs to be a stronger management policy to deal with the deer population, so why introduce a larger deer species?
Most biologists would be more concerned with a second ungulate species’ impact on the health of our local environment. With overabundant white tail deer wrecking havoc on sapling growth, one could only imagine how a larger deer would affect the habitat. The coal counties of Wise, Buchannan, and Dickenson have poor quality of food resources for deer, and thus have a very small population of white tail deer. When a habitat can barely support deer, why should elk be thrown into the equation?
Johnny Wills explained that the driving force behind the elk reintroduction project was politics. The idea that elk could increase tourism and stimulate the economy is the main goal for the project, more than the animals themselves. Groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation that are supporting the project have sided that there is benefit to recreating the former state of the fauna in the region. Hunters have already jumped at the idea of big game hunting in Virginia. What is a main oversight is that these elk will not be candidates for hunting for quite some time. When asked when the herd could be hunted Mr. Wills answered that “in a decade there will be a lottery for limited elk licenses, but even in 30 years the population probably would still be under limited hunting restraints,” unlike the white tail deer in Virginia.
“It’s really politics behind the project which is moving it forwards” but at the same time politics are keeping the elk project from utilizing more suitable habitat areas. Despite the objections on each side, the project is planned to be implemented in late December 2011. With the increasing animosity with white tail deer, Virginia seems torn over the reintroduction project, and hoping for the best. “It’s not a question of where or when, we know that. Now it’s a question of how many elk we are going to get.”