Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Three hunters bag elk in Bland County

From left: Jerry Wess, Race Absher and Lonnie Keene show the bull elk Keene killed Saturday in Bland County. The three were specifically seeking the bull, which Keene spotted previously.

Courtesy of Jerry Wess

From left: Jerry Wess, Race Absher and Lonnie Keene show the bull elk Keene killed Saturday in Bland County. The three were specifically seeking the bull, which Keene spotted previously.

Mark Taylor Mark Taylor is outdoors editor at The Roanoke Times.

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@roanoke.com

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Mark Taylor

Outdoors coverage

The Wild Life blog

The pictures are vintage Internet rumor shots.

You know the deal.

The critter - in this case a good-sized Rocky Mountain bull elk - is easy to identify.

But the location could be just about anywhere, so you have every right to be a bit wary when the sender writes, "This 5x5 bull elk was killed Saturday in Bland County."

While these elk pictures almost certainly will be floating around with false information eventually, the initial report in this case turned out to be true.

Bland resident Lonnie Keene killed the elk with his muzzleloader Saturday morning.

"I've been trying to get out to Colorado to hunt for them for 35 years," said Keene, a 62-year-old retired coal company maintenance foreman. "I had to wait for one to finally come to me."

Elk kills are rare in Virginia, but haven't been unheard of since Kentucky started a restoration program about a decade ago.

Since then some of those elk have made their way across the border and into hunters' sights.

While the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries board recently voted to protect elk in three counties - Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise - that are part of a potential Virginia elk restoration zone, they are fair game during deer seasons in other counties.

Hunters are required to take the elk to an authorized check station, in part because DGIF biologists want to collect blood and tissue samples for disease testing.

Keene took his elk to a Bland County store known as the Square.

"Nobody expected to see that kind of thing in Bland County," owner Tommy Dunn said Monday.

Dunn said word of Keene's elk spread quickly.

"From there on we had lots of people stopping," he said. "It creates some excitement and in a small community that's always good, as long as it's good excitement."

Keene said the scene at the store was hectic.

"Traffic was kind of tied up for a while," said Keene, who was hunting with brother-in-law Jerry Wess and Wess's 13-year-old grandson, Race Absher on Saturday.

Community buzz likely contributed to the undoing of those involved in the other known elk kill in Virginia this fall.

The bull was killed illegally on Thanksgiving Day in Wise County, Boyton said.

The case, which resulted in multiple charges for multiple individuals, will likely end up in court next month.

"As you can see, word of an elk gets around pretty quickly," Boyton said. "It's pretty hard to slip an elk past anyone when it is sticking out of the back of a pickup truck."

Keene said he had spotted the elk prior to the late muzzleloader season, on a tract of private property on which he has permission to hunt.

Though he hadn't seen the bull for several days, he, Wess and Absher went to the spot Saturday morning in the hope that the animal was still in the area.

The hunters were together when they walked up on the elk, which was about 125 yards away.

"We were trying to get Race a shot, but he couldn't," Keene said. "When the elk turned to run it was either shoot then or let it get away."

After squeezing the trigger on his Remington Genesis muzzleloader, Keene's heart sunk.

"When the smoke cleared he was gone," he said. "I thought I missed."

But the bull, which Keene said biologists said could have weighed more than 500 pounds, had run only 80 yards.

Last season, when elk were fair game in all counties, hunters registered six legal kills, Boynton said.

Four of those elk were taken in Wise County, one in Lee and the other in Tazewell.

While Virginia's elk in recent years have been invaders from Kentucky, the state stands to get its first dose of stocked elk soon.

As part of its recently adopted elk restoration plan, the DGIF plans to release a small bunch of elk this spring in Buchanan County.

The number depends on the success of trapping efforts in Kentucky, which has agreed to provide the elk.

Boyton said he expects the stocking number to be around 15 animals.

DGIF officials had hoped to simultaneously start the restoration in Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties.

But while Buchanan County officials have been clamoring for the animals, their counterparts in Dickenson and Wise have opposed restoration, citing residents' concerns about potential damage to crops and livestock.

Boyton said farmers are most concerned about bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis, which can be transmitted from elk to cattle.

Keene's elk, as well as the illegal Wise County kill, will be tested for both of those diseases, as well as for chronic wasting disease.

Boyton said that bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis have not been a problem with Kentucky's elk, and said the hope is that the tests can provide some assurance to Virginia farmers that disease threats to cattle are minimal.

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