CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Efforts to restore elk populations to southern West Virginia got a significant boost with a nonprofit group’s purchase of more than 32,000 acres of land, officials announced Tuesday.
The Conservation Fund, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Virginia, announced it has bought land in Logan, Mingo and Lincoln counties for about $20 million for elk viewing, hunting and recreational use.
While restoration efforts have been ongoing in neighboring Kentucky for two decades, West Virginia hasn’t had an elk population since around 1875, although a few have been spotted in parts of southern West Virginia in recent years.
“This is a really cool project,” Conservation Fund vice president Joe Hankins said in a telephone interview. “To have a chance to restore an animal that hasn’t been seen in West Virginia since the end of the Civil War, this is a big deal. It’s really exciting for the state.”
Hankins said the state Division of Natural Resources will buy the land from The Conservation Group over the next four years, using various grants and funds from areas such as federal fees on hunting equipment and licenses. The Conservation Group will continue to oversee the property.
Public meetings on the DNR’s plan around the southern part of the state last year drew favorable responses.
“As tourism continues to grow in West Virginia, this will be a wonderful new opportunity for outdoor recreation that both our residents and visitors can enjoy,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in a statement. “I appreciate the cooperative efforts of everyone who helped make this project possible.”
Much of the land involved is reclaimed coal mine property — grasslands considered key for sustaining elk.
“Mine land reclamation sites are a nice starter landscape for them,” Hankins said. “That allows us to generate the kind of habitat that will persist and benefit all kinds of game and non-game species.”
Hankins said money for the purchase was a combination of Conservation Fund cash reserves, grants from other groups and fundraising efforts.
It remains to be determined where the elk will come from. West Virginia DNR biologists have been in contact with counterparts from other states.
In Kentucky, wildlife managers began bringing elk into more than a dozen counties in the mid-1990s from western states in what was heralded as an important ecology and tourism program. The herd’s numbers have grown in the thousands.