Elk herd health is strong, but growth is slow

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Video wv elk population

LOGAN, W.Va. — Although the West Virginia elk herd is growing and healthy, the top man overseeing the reintroduction project cautioned it’s way too early to be talking about any kind of elk hunting opportunities in the Mountain State.

“It could actually set us back if we jumped on that too early,” said Randy Kelley, Elk Project Leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources in a recent conversation on West Virginia Outdoors.

Although nothing has been officially discussed, some sportsmen have openly shared the idea on social media of a limited hunt for some of the bulls in southern West Virginia. Kelley warned even a limited hunt for males only at this point in the reintroduction process could be detrimental.

“It really messes with your herd dynamics because if somebody gets a bull tag, they’re going to want to take the big, mature bulls. But probably less than 30 percent of our herd is in that prime 5 to 9 year old breeding age. By removing those bulls of breeding age, you change the herd dynamics,” he explained.

Elk herd health is strong, but growth is slow
A young bull elk on the Tomblin WMA. Wildlife officials say any kind of hunting season now, even for bulls only, could be a dramatic setback to the program. PHOTO: Mark Bias

Due to concerns about predation, it’s desirable the majority of elk calves each spring or summer be born around the same time. When the landscape is flooded by young elk all at once, it lessens the chances of predators taking a higher percentage of those young and vulnerable calves. However, if the most mature and dominant bulls are removed and only the younger, more immature bulls are available during the rut it could delay breeding or cause breeding to be a complete failure without enough big bulls on the ground to get the job done.

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Due to so many variables, Kelley was reluctant to put a timeline or a herd population estimate on when a hunt of any kind would be acceptable. Neighboring Virginia just opened up a hunting season this year. Kelley indicated they would be closely watching the results of Virginia’s hunt to help guide decisions on elk management in West Virginia.

“There’s no use to reinvent the wheel. We learn from what others are doing and have done,” he said.

Kelley also revealed work has begun on a couple of university studies involving West Virginia’s elk herd. One of the studies is a cooperative genetics study with West Virginia University. The genetic testing will help reveal which bulls are fathering which calves, predominant breeding, and if any of the genetic traits from the two sources of elk are superior or make a difference in strength and survival.

“We have elk from the Land Between the Lakes and from Arizona. We have DNA from every one we released and that will give us a way to look at the parentage and see who is breeding whom and what’s actually going on on the ground out there with regard to breeding,” he said.

The study data could give a more clear look into any genetic predispositions on survival rates, resistance to parasites or disease, breeding dominance, and a host of other information which will help as the herd grows.

A second study on eastern elk is underway at the University of Tennessee which will enable Kelley and his team to know if an elk is suffering from brain worm before it succumbs to the parasite. Until now, they could only know if brain worm was present after the elk died.

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“U.T. has developed a blood test to detect brain worm and we can send them a blood sample and find out if any of our elk have it even if they are showing no symptoms,” he said.

Brain worm has been the single biggest killer of West Virginia elk since the reintroduction began. West Virginia annually loses about four percent to brain worm, but the national average is around six percent. Brain worm is a parasite present in whitetail deer. While it has no effect on deer, it’s become a deadly problem for the elk in the eastern U.S.

As for growing the herd with the translocation of more animals from other states, Kelley wasn’t optimistic.

“Because of CWD, the whole biological community is discouraging any movement of cervids at all at this point,” he explained.