Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bill Cochran's Outdoors: A good trade: Virginia trout for Kentucky elk

Elk grazing on reclaimed mining land in Buckhanan County

DGIF Outdoor Report/Rocky Mounain Elk Foundation

Elk grazing on reclaimed mining land in Buckhanan County

Bill Cochran Bill Cochran is a Roanoke Times outdoors columnist.


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Virginia’s herd of 24 elk stocked in Buchanan County is doing well and is scheduled to get a boost of 15 additional animals from Kentucky in May.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries has agreed to swap 10,000 to 12,000 catchable-size trout for the elk. The trout are scheduled to be shipped to Kentucky in the fall.

“Kentucky made a request for these trout this year and we have agreed to honor their request,” said Allen Boynton, who heads Virginia’s elk program as terrestrial wildlife biologist manager of the VDGIF. Virginia also is reimbursing Kentucky for expenses incurred in the translocation of elk.

Last year, 16 elk from Kentucky were released in Virginia’s Buchanan County on a vast chunk of private land near Vansant. That number grew to 24 following a period of calving.

“The elk are in very good condition and there are still 24 elk alive,” said Boynton. “While the elk have moved over a good-sized area, the center of their activity remains the release site. Food resources at the site are sufficient to hold them.”

This hasn’t always been the case in Kentucky where elk restoration efforts have resulted in a herd of 11,000 animals. A recent Associated Press story reported that marauding elk have trampled gardens, eaten ornamentals, grazed on lawns and caused car crashes on the twisting roads that wind through rural Stoney Fork in southeastern Kentucky.

Most of the damage has occurred in the dead of winter, especially during snows, which can drive the elk from their home range in the high country to seek food and shelter in the lowlands, much like they do in Yellowstone National Park. Only in Kentucky, the low country is where people reside. A favorite spot for the elk to crash has been Stoney Fork.

Wildlife officials say more than 100 elk have been killed in collisions with vehicles since 2005.

About three years ago, Kentucky officials approved a pilot project which allows Stoney Fork property owners to shoot nuisance elk during a special midwinter season that is outside the regular hunting dates. This year, it was open Jan. 26 to Feb. 8. The pilot project has expired, but residents are working with wildlife officials to reinstate it. They say it has reduced vehicle/elk accidents and other problems. It also has put meat in the freezers of residents.

“We will present our recommendations…at the November Wildlife Committee meeting,” said Dr. Kristina Brunjes, Kentucky’s Deer and Elk Program Coordinator.

Even if the pilot project isn’t renewed, landowners always have the right to kill animals in the act of causing damage, Brunjes said.

It would appear that the easy solution to Kentucky’s elk overload would be for the state to ship more of the animals to Virginia where officials have been getting only a portion of the number they would like to receive. I asked Boynton about that.

“Kentucky is not reluctant to provide the number of elk that Virginia would like to release,” he said. “They just need to do it on a schedule that they can accommodate without disrupting their other activities.”

Kentucky has authorized the translocation of 50 elk per year to other states. These currently are being divided between Missouri and Virginia, with Missouri in line ahead of Virginia and getting the majority. Both states are sharing in trapping and quarantining expenses.

Boynton said he is unaware of any problems created by the elk in Virginia. Their range includes meadows growing on recently reclaimed strip mining operations.

“Several area residents have seen elk, elk sign or gotten trail cam photos of the released elk in their locality, Boynton said. “There have been no complaints or problems that I know about.”

Virginia’s goal is to grow a herd of 400 elk in Buchanan County, where citizens have welcomed them. Limited hunting under a lottery system would be used to keep the animals in check.

While stockings have occurred in Buchanan County, other elk have wandered into Virginia from Kentucky. Most of these end up in Wise County, but elk have been spotted in nine far-southwest Virginia counties. Boynton is aware of two recent kills, both in Wise County; both illegal.

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