BUCHANAN COUNTY, Va. (WFXR) — Virginia’s effort to restore elk to the Commonwealth appears to be succeeding. According to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, the herd now numbers about 250. That is more than doubled from the 75 elk released into the wild to re-establish the herd in 2012.
Historically, elk were native to Virginia but were wiped out by overharvesting and habitat loss. Before the current herd was restored, the last wild elk in Virginia was recorded back in 1855.
There were a number of failed efforts to restore an elk herd in Virginia through the years. In 2012, wildlife managers decided to try again. They took elk from an established herd in neighboring Kentucky and set them free in far western Virginia. The animals flourished.
So, what was different this time?
Wildlife management efforts had evolved, and that included a focus on habitat.
“Some of the habitat work has consisted of removing invasive species like autumn olive and replacing that with native warm-season grasses that the elk naturally graze on and prefer,” said Breaks Interstate Park Superintendent Austin Bradley.
Given an ample traditional food source, and with careful management, the herd can now be found spread out over Wise, Buchanan, and Dickenson Counties. Wildlife managers are considering expanding the range of the herd to other counties, but habitat work will have to be done before that happens.