Bull elk; part of bachelor herd after rut. Courtesy of Mike Roberts Outdoors, LLC
Bull elk; part of bachelor herd after rut. Courtesy of Mike Roberts Outdoors, LLC

On a cool May day in 2012, Leon Boyd watched proudly as several Rocky Mountain elk jumped from trailers into a 5-acre holding pen just outside Grundy.

Boyd had been among the most active advocates for what was then Virginia’s nascent elk restoration program.

“I think you’ll only see it grow,” said Boyd, predicting that one day Buchanan County could attract wildlife-viewing tourists such as those drawn to North Carolina’s Cataloochee Valley to see its elk. “There’s a one-lane road going through that valley and on weekends you can’t even get through there.”

Ten years later, Boyd’s prediction has proven prescient. While Buchanan County’s growing elk population isn’t yet causing traffic jams, it is drawing a growing number of tourists to Virginia’s coal country.

There are several elk viewing areas, but the best chance of seeing the animals comes on organized bus tours hosted by Breaks Interstate Park and Southern Gap Outdoor Adventures, which coordinate tours with Southwest Virginia Sportsmen, the local chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. (This year’s schedule of spring and fall tours was recently announced.)

The tours take place behind locked gates on the private land — most of it reclaimed mine lands — where the elk are concentrated.

Map by Robert Lunsford.

“When we started the tours, we were using a 10-passenger van,” said Breaks Interstate Park manager Austin Bradley. “Now we have a 32-passenger bus and a 24-passenger bus.”

Last year the scheduled tours drew more than 400 guests.

“It was our best year for tours and the park also set a record for overnight visits,” Bradley said. “If you look at our reviews on Trip Advisor, it seems like at least half of them mention the elk tours.”

Interest in elk seems likely to continue to grow as the restoration enters its second decade. The Virginia DWR is so bullish on elk that it is offering a lottery for a managed elk hunt next fall. The lottery opened Feb. 1.

The state will issue six tags for male elk, or bulls, as they are called. Five of the tags will be issued through a random drawing. A sixth will be offered through a raffle, with proceeds benefiting the restoration program. Landowners are cooperating to allow hunting.

Over three years starting in 2012, Virginia released 75 elk that had been captured in neighboring Kentucky. The herd has grown significantly.

“The state’s official number is 250-plus,” said Jackie Rosenberger, the wildlife biologist who oversees the elk program for the DWR. “But there is an emphasis on the ‘plus.’”

Allowing carefully managed hunting was among the many goals outlined in Virginia’s formal elk management plan. The herd is now big enough to handle removing a half-dozen bulls through hunting.

At the same time, the lottery has the potential to raise significant funding for the agency. Revenue from lottery fees — $15 for Virginia residents; $20 for nonresidents — will be applied to the agency’s general fund so the benefits will be statewide.

While it’s unknown how many hunters will apply, the lottery has potential to raise significant money. Kentucky’s elk tag lottery drew roughly 95,000 entries in 2021, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, resulting in nearly a million dollars in application fees.

Kentucky, where the herd is estimated to be about 15,000 animals, issued nearly 600 tags last year.

Some credit for Virginia’s elk restoration program rests with the Bluegrass state, which started its restoration program 25 years ago.

“It was a massive restoration effort,” Rosenberger said. “They got elk from six different western states and ended up putting about 1,500 elk on their landscape.”

Some of those elk occasionally wandered into Virginia, which at the time concerned state wildlife officials, who were worried about the possibility that some transplanted elk may have carried diseases, including tuberculosis and brucellosis, which can be transmitted to cattle. 

Also fearsome was the threat of chronic wasting disease, an always-fatal neurological disease of elk and deer that can’t be detected in live animals. (Chronic wasting disease has since been confirmed in Virginia, primarily in the northern Shenandoah Valley.)

The eastern subspecies of elk were once common in Virginia but were extirpated by the mid 1800s due to habitat degradation and over-harvest. A restoration effort started in the early 1900s also eventually failed.

At first, Virginia officials tried to capture and return the visiting ungulates from Kentucky, but eventually they simply allowed hunters to use their Virginia deer tags on elk. It wasn’t unusual for Virginia deer hunters to take several wayward elk a year from counties bordering Kentucky.

As the Kentucky herd grew and CWD never materialized, Virginia’s DWR became more open to the idea of implementing its own restoration effort. A number of vocal supporters, including Boyd and Charles Yates, who at that time represented far Southwest Virginia on the DWR’s board of directors, believed an elk herd could prove beneficial to Virginia’s struggling coal country economies.

“We have relied on coal and gas for so long,” said Boyd, who lives in Vansant and has spent his own career in the energy industry.

After an elk feasibility study in 2000 funded in part by the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the DWR determined to not pursue restoration at that time. The subject was revisited in 2010 when the agency’s board directed staff to start a restoration program. Buchanan, Dickenson and Wise counties were chosen as an Elk Restoration Zone. 

“Those three counties were chosen due to low human density, lack of agriculture, a lower potential for elk-human conflicts, a high amount of forested and reclaimed mine lands for elk habitat, and the proximity to Kentucky’s elk herd,” Rosenberger said.

Buchanan County officials were the only ones within what is now called the Elk Management Zone who were on board, so that was where elk were translocated to from 2012 to 2014. (Elk are fully protected in the three counties but may still be taken by deer hunters in other counties.)

Prior to their arrival in Virginia, all of the stocked elk spent time in holding pens to assure they were disease-free. There have since been no reports of feared diseases, including tuberculosis and brucellosis.

Boyd said community backing has been critical to the effort’s success.

“It’s a small community, but the amount of support has been phenomenal,” he said.

The Southwest Virginia Sportsmen group holds annual banquets that, prior to Covid-related disruptions, raised upwards of $100,000 each year. The money helps pay for habitat enhancements, which also get a boost from private donations, investments from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and hundreds of volunteer work hours.

“Southwest Virginia Sportsmen have done it to a level that we wouldn’t be able to as an agency,” Rosenberger said of the habitat improvements. “These elk are born here and they don’t leave. There is no reason for them to leave because they are born in the middle of a buffet.”

That buffet is good for other critters, too, including white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, songbirds and even amphibians that thrive in man-made ponds.

Kristi Rose, the campground manager at Southern Gap Outdoors, said plenty of campground guests are avid birders. But most who come to Buchanan County for wildlife viewing are there for one thing.

“The first thing they ask is, ‘Where can we find some elk?’” Rose said.

On the spring tours, cows with calves are the primary draw.

“But in the fall everyone wants to see the big bulls,” Rose said.

During the fall breeding season, dominant bulls guard their harems ferociously, their bugles echoing across the fields and forests.

“There’s nothing like being up there on the mountain when the rut starts and listening to those bugles,” Rose said before adding with a wry laugh. “Deer used to be a big thing but now they’re pretty much ignored.”

During the same week that the elk hunt lottery opened, Breaks Interstate Park and Southern Gap Outdoor Adventures released its schedule for elk tours for this coming spring and fall.

Not surprisingly, their phones immediately started ringing.

Mark Taylor is Trout Unlimited's Eastern Communications Director. Based in Roanoke, he is also a freelance...