West Virginia’s native elk have finally come home

The last recorded sighting of a wild elk in the Mountain State was in 1875.
Elk bull, calf, and cow with radio tags against the West Virginia mountains
This GPS-collared bull, cow, and calf are just three of the approximately 85-member herd in West Virginia. Mark Bias

This story originally featured on Outdoor Life.

Hardly a day goes by that Randy Kelley and his staff in the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources aren’t keeping tabs on the state’s elk: Surveying habitat, monitoring animals with satellite GPS, replacing tracking collars, or any one of a hundred tasks required to grow the newest elk herd in the eastern US. Kelley, a state biologist, has been the project leader since the program started in 2015.

In February and March of this year, Kelley, his team of biologists, and Division of Natural Resources wildlife managers are tranquilizing elk and replacing expired GPS collars, or placing collars on the young elk that have been born here.

On a day in early March, I ride to the bait site with Kelley and wildlife technician Jake Wimmer. Kelley dons scent-proof camo, loads an impressive looking CO2-powered dart gun, and disappears into a blind. Wimmer puts out more alfalfa hay and we quickly get in the truck and leave the area. We join the other crew members a mile away, and the waiting game begins.

“It’s just like hunting,” Wimmer tells me as we drive. “You just have to sit and wait. Some elk may come in, or not, you just have to be patient.”

I join the rest of the crew as we wait for Kelley to dart an elk, taking in the bright sunshine—something we haven’t had for a while. The biologists are old hands at this, the talk is easy and comfortable between this group of wildlife professionals with good natured ribbing about different incidents on the job. Someone produces a new bass rod and begins casting down the dusty road to try it out.

I had expected a long wait, and I’m surprised when the radio crackles.

“We’ve got an elk down!” Kelley says excitedly. “Get over here!”

We all pile in the trucks and head that way. We find Kelley close to his blind, kneeling beside a sedated young bull elk. Now the team springs into action like a well-oiled machine. First, they roll the bull onto his chest so he can breathe more easily, then put a hood over his eyes to reduce stress. Each team member has a job: looking at health indicators like overall body condition, checking the elk’s teeth, taking a small biopsy punch for a DNA sample, and placing a new GPS collar on the bull. Although it is March, the air is cold, which is why the team is darting and collaring now; waiting until warmer weather might cause the elk to overheat.

The whole process takes maybe fifteen minutes and before I know it, Kelley is injecting the elk with a drug to counteract the tranquilizer and begin the wake up process. A few minutes later, the big animal gets to his feet—still a little groggy— and begins to walk off. Twenty yards away, he stops and looks back at us.

“They always do that,” one of the crew says.

The elk turns and wanders off into the brush.

Read the rest of the essay over at Outdoor Life.