Thursday, December 04, 2008
Bill Cochran's Outdoors: How can an animal as big as an elk do a disappearing act?
Bill Cochran's Outdoors
- Virginia’s hunting totals produce mixed results
- A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk
- Forget the odds-makers; Salem’s John Crews believes he can win the Bassmaster Classic.
- The good and bad of the 2012 saltwater fishing season
- Column archive
Bill's Field Reports
- Virginia General Assembly goes soft on outdoor issues
- Quail Unlimited calls it quits
- Field reports archive
Some wildlife experts estimate there is a herd of about 60 elk in far Southwest Virginia. These animals are legal targets any time a deer season is open, which is most of the fall and early winter.
Yet, last year only two were reported killed by hunters.
How can animals this large and this exotic be so invisible?
I put that question and others to Johnny Wills, a Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries’ biologist assigned to the region where the elk are located. Earlier, the DGIF had decided to take a fresh look its elk management philosophy with an eye toward protecting and building the size of the herd (See Nov. 6 Cochran Column).
My questions for Wills:
Q. What is your estimate of the number of elk in Virginia?
A. A population estimate is difficult to make even with detailed herd information. I am hesitant to say a specific number because I just don’t know. I will say that elk have persisted despite our liberal harvest regulations in certain areas: Pound Reservoir, Russell County near Castlewood and in a few strip mines.
Q. I notice the kill spiked in 2002 (9 kills) and 20003 (10 kills) while before and after those years it ranged from one to three per year. What was special about 2002 and 2003?
A. That was during a release period in Kentucky and some elk simply headed for Virginia because they had not established a home range. Animals are more vulnerable to harvest when they haven’t had a chance to acclimate to the reintroduction area.
Q. Tell me about the kills of last season.
A. One was a 3.5-year-old bull killed on the Virginia/Kentucky border and the other was an old cow killed on private land in Buchanan County. She was one of the original released elk.
Q. What is the total number of kills you have recorded in Virginia?
A. Twenty-nine from 2000 to 2007.
Q. Why are so few elk being killed, like only two last season?
A. I think there are a few reasons for this.
1. The areas where we know elk are persisting provide several advantages to the animals. The topography is very broken with many deeply incised drainages that elk can move to if there is disturbance. National forest land surrounding North Fork of Pound Reservoir is one such area and it is mostly a roadless area. Vegetation is very dense as well. Not only do we have mountain laurel and rhododendron thickets that can swallow an elk herd, but even the oak/hickory forest limits sight distance, especially on steep ridges.
2. Elk tend to roam more than deer, making them difficult to pattern.
3. Timing is important as well. Most people are looking for elk during the November-January deer season, which is after the rut. The rut is more likely during the earliest part of our archery season. During the rut, bulls and cows can be together. After the rut, bulls and cows split up, although very young bulls stay with the cows. Older bulls are either solitary or form small bachelor herds and neither bulls nor cows move as much during the winter following the stressful rut period.
Q. Do you hear a lot of bugling during the rut?
A. I have conducted September bugling surveys in Southwest Virginia for the last several years in areas where I would expect to hear bulls bugling. However, I have yet to hear a bull even though I occasionally find elk sign in these regions. In other words, I know the elk are there but they seem to not be as vocal in areas with low elk density.
Q. What about reclaimed strip mines. Aren’t these good places to hunt elk?
A. Recently restored strip mines are an ideal place to find elk, but these areas are often under private ownership and provide limited opportunities for elk hunting.
Q. What kind of hunting pressure are you getting?
A. Many people come to this area to hunt for elk, both locals and people from northern and eastern Virginia. Even with this pressure, it is difficult for anyone to even find sign.
Q. Is there widespread interest in your region for elk restoration? What about opposition?
A. I speak with people in the area, especially hunters, who have a high degree of interest in elk being established. Although I personally have not received much in the way of negative comments, I know that elk can cause damage to agricultural property and that some farmers will oppose the establishment of an elk herd.
Q. Right now you can hunt elk during any deer season, but the DGIF is giving consideration to protection elk in an effort to allow the herd to increase. How many years do you estimate it would be before elk hunting could be reinstated?
A. The future of elk hunting in Virginia depends upon population management goals that have not been established. Hunting would be based on population management goals.
Veteran outdoors writer Bill Cochran will be inducted into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame. See Roanoke Times' Mark Taylor's story for details.