The Shawnee called them “wapiti,” which means “white rump.” The early colonial naturalists called them “red deer,” which is still better than the name they eventually wound up with.
Thomas Jefferson referred to them as “round-horned elk.” In his long debate with Buffon over the theory of “American degeneracy,” Jefferson routinely pointed out the size of the American moose and the “round-horned elk” as being evidence that North American species were every bit as massive as those of Eurasia. Buffon believed that everything that came into the Americas would “degenerate” over time. The climate caused a form of natural selection in which animals in North and South America had to become smaller than those of Eurasia and Africa. Jefferson, of course, thought this was nonsense.
The elk of Europe was called the “flat-horned” or “palmated elk,” which we now know is the Old World version of the moose, but for whatever reason, the giant Cervus deer of North America got called an “elk.”
Settlers coming through the Alleghenies shot the great deer by the score. Their meat was very much in favor and their hides produced a strong buckskin. By the 1870s, they were extinct from West Virginia. It was one of the last states in the East to hold onto a population, but “progress” eventually caught up to them.
Kentucky and Pennsylvania have been at the game of elk restoration for a long time. Elk were reintroduced to Pennsylvania in 1913, using surplus elk from Yellowstone. Kentucky reintroduced elk from western Kansas in 1997.
And the Kentucky elk range borders on West Virginia. Every once in a while, some elk wander into West Virginia from Kentucky, but they never became established.
In 2015, the legislature passed a resolution calling for elk to be restored (along with the legalization of crossbows for hunting deer and bears).
And the state started looking for ways to do it. Kentucky was the obvious place to contact. Kentucky not only has a freely breeding population, but it has a “seed population” in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area. These elk are all free of chronic wasting disease, a contagious brain disease that closely resembles the scrapie in sheep and the infamous “mad cow disease.”
24 elk from that seed population arrived in West Virginia yesterday. They were turned out in a three-acre holding pen on an old strip mine in Logan County that is now called the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area.
Soon, they’ll be wandering the coal country. The state envisions an elk population in the Southwest that is roughly contiguous with the elk population of Eastern Kentucky and the newly established population in Southwest Virginia.
Maybe one day, there will be a move to establish elk in parts of Pennsylania near the West Virginia line and then elk will be turned out in Northern West Virginia as well. And maybe they’ll be restored in New York State, too.
And then we’ll have a continuous population of Appalachian elk.
The truth is there really isn’t that much future for West Virginia.
But there might be if we looked hard at that slogan that lies at the bottom of our license plates and can be seen on every welcome sign at the state lines.
“West Virginia, wild and wonderful.”
And now wild and wonderful enough to have elk.