It has been nearly 140 years since the last wild elk was killed in West Virginia. Now, reintroduction programs in Kentucky and Pennsylvania are giving state officials hope the animal could thrive here again. But the number of obstacles should remind the Division of Natural Resources how important it is to consider such a project very carefully.
With talk of reintroduction come many questions. Kentucky has enjoyed financial benefit from charging fees for hunting permits, while Pennsylvania has created elk-viewing areas that draw buses filled with tourists. West Virginia had better quickly decide which approach it plans to take - remembering the level of enforcement it would take to manage hunting of a population of animals once driven out of the state by hunters.
"The southern coalfields have the least amount of suitable habitat," DNR Director Frank Jezioro said. "But there is no farming and no crop damage problems down there, and the people would accept it."
That does not sound like a winning situation. Neither does the fact that at least 30,000 to 40,000 acres are needed - and and that region, that kind of space would have to come from a private landowner. But how do you grant hunting licenses for animals hunters would have to access private land to reach?
Habitat is plentiful in the Monongahela National Forest, but farmers in the area have a valid concern about crop damage. Jezioro said the elk could be introduced in the northern mountains, but "the first thing we would do is have a public meeting to see if the public would want them. If they don't, there's no need to pursue it any further."
While it sounds like a wonderful idea on the surface, reintroducing elk to West Virginia would be a complex project, with any number of pitfalls in its way - including the potential for deadly collisions between vehicles and the large animals. State drivers already pay some of the highest auto insurance rates in the nation because of the number of auto-deer collisions. Adding elk to that mix certainly will not do anything to lower those rates.
State officials must proceed very cautiously, and at the highest level of detail, to ensure they are doing the right thing for the animals and our people.