DNR Biologist details economic effect from elk restoration

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A DNR biologist said southern West Virginia counties could see major economic returns from elk re-introduction, once completed.

In Tuesday’s Joint Oversight Commission on Workforce Investment for Economic Development, DNR biologist Randy Kelley updated legislators on elk re-introduction efforts and the effects this could have on southern West Virginia’s economy.

Kelley explained elk were native to West Virginia. However, the Civil War had a major effect on elk’s habitat in the Northeast.

In 2015, the Legislature passed House Bill 2515, bringing elk to southern West Virginia counties of McDowell, Wyoming, Mingo, Wayne, Logan, Lincoln, and Boone counties.  The Mountain State introduced 24 elk in 2016.

West Virginia was not the first state to re-introduce elk. Kelley detailed efforts in Pennsylvania, which has more than 1,000 elk. Virginia has an elk zone in three counties in the northwestern part of the state. Virginia re-introduced elk in 2013, has about 250 elk and does not allow hunting at this time, he said.

Kentucky, however, is the model for eastern elk re-introduction, Kelley said. Kentucky started re-introducing elk in the 1990s, bringing 1,500 elk from seven western states. Kelly told legislators that Kentucky has the largest free-range elk herd in the eastern United States at 13,000 animals in a 16-county zone.

West Virginia established a five-year management plan to properly manage wildlife in the state with the goal of providing a self-sustaining herd in the southern counties.

West Virginia’s current elk population is 80, Kelley said. Some problems have been chronic wasting disease found in deer along with brain worms that have infected elk.

Kelley said the southern part of the state could see economic returns. He cited surrounding states’ numbers including Pennsylvania, which drew 57,000 visitors the first year and Kentucky, which initially estimated an $18 million effect on the communities.

Kelley stressed that these are not just hunting numbers. These are tourism figures as well. Although there have not been economic predicting studies in West Virginia, Kelley said the state could expect $1.1 million to $2.4 million per county per year once completed.

Kelley mentioned elk viewing tours at Chief Logan State Park. Although visitors are not guaranteed to see elk, 90% of those who took the tour reported seeing them. Kelley said half of the people reported the tour as their first visit to Chief Logan State Park. This year, he said, there are 25 tours scheduled and all are sold out.