I first wrote about Virginia’s elk restoration project for Virginia Sportsman Magazine back in 2012, shortly after the first modest group of elk was transported from Kentucky to southwest Virginia. The plan was the result of immense effort by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), legislators at the state and local levels, wildlife biologists and private landowners to bring back the state’s once-native elk. And the work never stops.
I was privileged to have been present for the second elk release in 2013 (there was a third in 2014), and have been back a couple times, always graciously hosted by Leon Boyd, one of the key drivers of the project. Boyd, who grew up exploring the same mountainous terrain of Buchanan county nearly 200 elk now call home, watches over these animals and this land with a level of care that goes far beyond stewardship. When he talks about this project, the animals, the land and all the people it takes to initiate and sustain a project of this scale, you get the sense he’s talking about family.
Five years ago when I watched those elk awkwardly stumble down a trailer ramp and set foot on Virginia soil for the first time in their lives, I knew I would always have a special attachment to them. So when I learned that Leon was organizing a work weekend where volunteers would spend a day helping out, I wanted to make the trip. The weekend would involve lots of hard work. But there would also be some social time with like-minded conservationists, some wildlife viewing and even an opportunity to scour the woods and fields in search of a rare Virginia elk antler shed before heading home. So I asked a couple of close friends if they might be interested in joining me.
I have hiked more miles with Chris Gibson looking for antlers than I can count. Like me, Chris is obsessed with antlers. To Chris, they are more than beautiful, fascinating biomechanical artifacts. They are almost sacred. Their pursuit is the one thing that gets us both moving with enthusiasm after a too-sedentary winter.
My friend Shawn Story is an all-around outdoorsman who loves to hunt more than anyone I know. He has taught me much about hunting and we always enjoy time spent outdoors together. He has spent a lot of time out west and loves the wildlife of Montana and Wyoming, including the magnificent elk. As I write this it occurs to me that Shawn is the type of man that would thrive just as well 150 years ago, in a Virginia flush with native elk, as now.
All three of us are proud and enthusiastic Virginia natives, too, so when I asked them if they wanted to be a part of this, they both responded without hesitation, “I’m in!”
Tourism has always been a major goal of the elk restoration project in Virginia. I interviewed Allen Boynton for my 2012 article, at the time a VDGIF biologist heavily involved in the project. His biggest long-term concern at that time, he told me, was providing the public with opportunities to enjoy the elk herd. Buchanan County is rugged and remote, and access can be difficult.
But great strides have already been made here. When Chris, Shawn and I arrived we stayed in a wonderful little cabin at Southern Gap Outdoor Adventures. The campground and cabin area at Southern Gap overlook a food plot where the elk routinely feed, so visitors have the opportunity to view the elk there.
Nearby Breaks Interstate Park has elk tours throughout the year, and works with Southern Gap to shuttle guests to the primary viewing plateau in the heart of the elk habitat. There are plans for a visitor’s center with wildlife exhibits and other exciting recreational and educational opportunities as well.
But there is no better advertisement for the draw of these elk to visitors than the words and reactions of the visitors themselves. The first night we arrived, there was enough daylight left for Leon to lead a caravan to the habitat in hopes of seeing some elk. Chris, Shawn and I (along with Shawn’s German Wirehaired Pointer and my Wirehaired Dachshund who came along for the weekend) all piled into Shawn’s truck and followed the group up and up and up the winding gravel road. Just as we reached the clearing at the top, Shawn and Chris saw for the first time, Virginia elk.
They were utterly speechless.
Then a moment later they couldn’t stop talking and fumbling with camera phones, heads out the window to eliminate any barrier between their eyes and those animals. “There’s another one!” “Oh my God.” “I can’t believe we’re seeing this,” they exclaimed, along with a handful of other excited remarks not suitable to share here.
The elk were healthy and content, and not particularly wary of us. Many of the individuals appeared disheveled, just the result of being caught between winter and summer coats. But they were beautiful to us. Seeing these elk roaming free in our home state filled us all with joy, and we drove around with excited smiles, wide eyes and full hearts until the sun set and we could see no more.
“I find myself having a difficult time putting the whole experience into words,” Chris shared with me later. He had never before seen elk in the wild, and always assumed he would have to go out west to do so. “I don't even fully understand all the feelings I experienced the first evening we were there, watching that herd of elk, many born right here in Virginia, grazing along the hillside as the sun set behind them.”
Shawn, too, was overwhelmed, despite having seen plenty of elk out west before. “It was awe inspiring,” he said, “To see a wild elk herd in my home state.”
We sat around the fire that night remembering and talking about having seen with our own eyes an elk herd on Virginia soil, on reclaimed strip mine land no less. The terrain has been transformed into near perfect elk habitat. But we would get up early and help improve it the next day, clearing rocks from fields so they could be mowed, thus expanding the amount of inviting pasture on which the elk can graze. It proved to be back-breaking work, but oh so rewarding.
The group of volunteers included men, women and children from all over the area, including a group from the recently started West Virginia elk restoration project which is using the materials that were used here to construct the quarantine pens. All told, volunteers logged 285 total hours of work that day, and were rewarded with a great meal afterwards, also provided by volunteers.
The next morning we returned to the habitat, with sunburned necks and aching backs, hoping to find an elk antler shed. Nathan, a new friend we met down there, showed us around the places the elk travel. Nathan spends a lot of time observing the habits of these elk. We searched together at first, then drifted apart after a while, each eyeing different terrain in hopes of glimpsing a treasured, bone-white prize. Nathan found two antlers – an old, broken base of a large antler, and an older spike shed. He graciously gave both of them to me, not wanting me to go home empty handed.
But what I wanted more than anything was for Chris and Shawn to find sheds, and after putting in some hard miles, they both did.
The antler Shawn found was still attached to an elk the night before, in fact we all have photos of it. “The tireless work and dedication put forth by everyone involved to reclaim coal mine property and turn it into wildlife habitat is truly astonishing,” Shawn said. “But to actually watch a bull for two days, then search tirelessly for a shed antler and to be gifted one off his head hours after it dropped is the cherry on top.”
“To be a proud owner of a rare find such as this and to share those moments with friends is a day I will not soon forget,” he added.
Chris’s find is a real beauty. He said he almost cried when he saw it, but by the time I saw him minutes later his emotion had shifted to unbridled, giddy jubilation. He held it triumphantly over his head, while telling me repeatedly it was one of the best weekends of his life. I wonder if he has even put it down yet.
In the 2012 article I mentioned earlier, I quoted David Allen, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) president and CEO. This program in Virginia simply would not have happened without the untiring support of the RMEF.
“Hats off to the citizens of Virginia, and especially those of Buchanan County, who understand there is no higher calling in conservation than restoring a native game species to sustainable, huntable, balanced populations,” Allen said. “For everyone who doesn’t understand it today, I believe you’ll be convinced over time that this was the right decision, the right thing to do, the right way to go about it.”
And now, six years on, I can speak for a group of three friends from the opposite end of the state when I say we are convinced. And we pledge to do our part in convincing anyone else who will listen.
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