HOLDEN, W.Va. (AP) — On land where coal was once mined, officials have trumpeted the return of an elk herd to West Virginia for the first time in 141 years.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and officials from the state Division of Natural Resources and other agencies introduced the public to 24 elk Monday in a wilderness area bearing his name in southern West Virginia.
Hundreds of people showed up Monday to snap photos and view the elk a few hundred yards away in a holding pen where they're getting acclimated. They'll be released later this month.
The holding pen is on reclaimed coal mine property, where grasslands have been cultivated and are considered key for sustaining elk.
"There's thousands of acres here that's been restored," Tomblin said. "To have the elk population here for people to come and enjoy, I think it's putting the land to good use."
In a state where thousands of coal mining jobs have been lost in the past few years, officials are touting the elk's potential to help tourism. Elk herds, killed off by hunters and habitat loss, haven't roamed the state since 1875.
"The southern coalfields are hurting with the downturn in the coal industry," said Randy Kelley, the DNR's elk project coordinator. "Tourism in West Virginia is a growing industry, and this is just another cog in that machine. We expect we'll get a lot of visitors here as well, particularly in the fall when they're bugling. It's not something that people in the east are used to.
"It's like Christmas a week early for those of us who enjoy the outdoors."
While elk herds are common in western states, they were reintroduced in several states back east in the past two decades, including in the southeastern Kentucky mountains in 1997.
Officials had hoped elk in Kentucky would naturally migrate in numbers to West Virginia, but that never happened. Legislation in West Virginia last year authorized the DNR to pursue an elk restoration plan.
Last January, the Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit Conservation Fund bought more than 32,000 acres of land in Logan, Mingo and Lincoln counties for about $20 million for wildlife management and recreation. The state DNR, which also acquired an additional 10,000 acres under lease agreements, will manage the entire wilderness area.
DNR biologists trapped the elk at Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in November. The elk were quarantined to determine whether they were disease-free, and then were transported to Logan County on Thursday. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation contributed $50,000 to help offset the costs of the restoration project.
Doyle Gore of Holden, a retired equipment operator and welder from Patriot Coal, was hired to help construct the holding pen this summer.
Gore said he's traveled to New Mexico and Colorado to hunt elk. He said he never imagined he'd see the day where elk would return to his home state.
"I was tickled to death," he said.
Officials want to give the herd several years to expand before potentially opening the state to elk hunting. Efforts will be made to bring in additional elk from out-of-state.
"I doubt if I ever get to hunt these," Gore said. "But at least my grandkids and young people will be able to."