Once extinct, Virginia’s Eastern elk are back.
Come fall, in southwest Virginia, you might hear a strange and unfamiliar sound echoing over the hills—something like your kid’s first painful clarinet lessons mashed up with a South African vuvuzela.
What you’re hearing is the sound of success: the bugling call of Virginia elk. Nearly 170 years after they were extirpated from the state, these massive animals are now thriving again along the mountainous border with Kentucky, thanks to a restoration effort many years in the making.
Jacalyn Rosenberger, Elk Project Leader for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, explains that Eastern elk—a distinct subspecies of the North American elk population—were once not only native to Virginia but prior to colonization “would have been heavily present west of Virginia’s coastal plain,” she says. But hunting and habitat loss took their predictable toll; 1855 saw the last documented record of an elk harvested in the state.
In the early 1900s, a first effort was made to bring elk back to Virginia. But in an era decades before wildlife management became a profession, “Whoever did it had no idea what they were doing,” says Rosenberger. The elk, brought in from elsewhere, were “truly scattered everywhere,” she says, and they never got enough of a hoof-hold to make a comeback.
In the late 1990s, neighboring Kentucky began an elk restoration program of its own, with the population there now numbering about 15,000. Not surprisingly, some wandered across the border into Virginia. Where for a long time they were not welcome.
“Initially, people did not want them here,” says Rosenberger. There were concerns about agricultural damage, about collisions with vehicles, about diseases spreading to livestock. “If an elk wandered over, our agency tried to capture and return them.”
But finally, Virginia began its own restoration project with Buchanan, Wise, and Dickinson counties, where with a relatively sparse population there was less concern for “elk-human conflict” and where extensive reclaimed mine lands offered ideal habitat potential; elk like the cover of forested areas, particularly in summer where they can take refuge from the heat of the day, but they graze on grasses and other open-land plants.
Starting with 75 elk from Kentucky brought in between 2012 and 2014, the Virginia population has since grown to at least 275, thanks in no small part to intensive volunteer efforts and support from conservation groups that together have continued to improve that habitat for the elk and other wildlife.
Elk are among North America’s largest land mammals. A mature bull can weigh 800 pounds or more, crowned with 30 pounds of antlers, which are shed and grown anew each year.
“Antlers are the fastest-growing tissue in nature,” Rosenberg notes. “That’s 30 pounds of solid bone that they are growing every year.”
The fall mating season (known as “the rut”), however, is hard on the males. A dominant bull gathers a “harem” (that’s the official term) of cows and calves, but must constantly defend them against other males. While the rut lasts only from the end of September to mid-October, Rosenberg says, the bulls can lose as much as 200 pounds during that time—just as winter is about to arrive. “They can’t rest. They barely have time to eat. They are constantly trying to guard their group against other bulls.” Thus, she says, in summer, pretty much all they do is eat, trying to pack on the pounds so they can survive the rut and the winter that follows.
At the end of the rut, the cows and immature young herd into large groups for the winter, then in May or June, the cows break away to give birth. Although a newborn calf is vulnerable to predators, once a mother licks it clean, it also becomes scentless, and for a week or so it will lie still in the grass to evade detection while the mother visits it a few times a day for feedings. Once the calf is up and around—by about two weeks—it moves with its mother, and eventually cows and calves regroup for the summer.
And so through the power of stewardship,
Virginia’s elk population has continued to grow, and interest in viewing them has become a boon for the region. A buck in full antlered glory emerging from the autumn mists, bugling its call, is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring displays. Now, in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, you can experience it once more.
This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue.