West Virginia elk had fewer calves than expected

This photo, taken on a game camera on June 26, 2018, shows the first elk calf born and bred in West Virginia since elk were wiped out in West Virginia in the 1870s. Three calves were born in the Mountain State last June, but those were bred in Kentucky. (Courtesy WVDNR)

This photo, taken on a game camera on June 26, 2018, shows the first elk calf born and bred in West Virginia since elk were wiped out in West Virginia in the 1870s. Three calves were born in the Mountain State last June, but those were bred in Kentucky. (Courtesy WVDNR)

WEST VIRGINIA — According to Randy Kelley, elk project leader for the state Division of Natural Resources, 10 to 15 calves appear to have been born between late May and mid-June. Kelley said the exact number is not yet known.

“There’s no way to know for sure,” he explained. “Elk cows hide their calves. Through July and sometimes even up into August, we might see a cow by herself and think she didn’t have a calf. Then later she’ll show up with one.”

DNR officials knew from blood tests that 24 of the cow elk imported this year from Kentucky and Arizona were pregnant. They anticipated that at least some of the 12 cows stocked in December 2016 would be pregnant, too. Apparently, however, the stresses of captivity cost some of this year’s imports their calves, and in a few instances their own lives as well.

Problems arose because the U.S. Department of Agriculture required the DNR to keep the 50 elk imported from Arizona quarantined in a holding pen for 90 days after they were brought to West Virginia. The USDA further required that the animals be tested a second time for diseases just before they were released.

DNR officials, who realized the second round of tests would have to take place in the May heat, appealed the ruling but were refused. Eight adult elk died as a result of the additional handling, four while still in the holding pen and four after they were released to the wild.

“Those deaths were all the result of handling and stress,” Kelley said.

Two calves born in captivity also died. Kelley said at least one calf born in the holding pen was alive when it left. He suspects others might have been stillborn.

“Bottom line, I don’t think we’ll have many Arizona calves out there,” he said. “We’re not going to have the numbers I was expecting early on.”

If all the pregnant cows had borne the calves they were carrying, the state’s elk herd would have grown to more than 100 animals, and possibly 110. Kelley’s new estimate is in the 90s, with 100 at the high end of the potential maximum.

“Still, if we have 10 or 12 calves born this year, that’s a 75 percent markup from last year,” he said. “We’re really looking forward to next year, when we’ll have 30 to 40 cows in the wild that will have the opportunity to be pregnant. We should more than double this year’s recruitment.”

Kelley said he’ll have a better idea on the new calf births after he’s had a chance to monitor the cows’ movements via their tracking collars.

When cow elk give birth, they like to isolate themselves and their newborn calves. Last year, Kelley was able to get a handle on the exact number of births by tracking solitary cows and setting out game cameras to confirm whether they were with calves. He said those tools should give him a good grasp on the number of births by late July or early August.

DNR officials say further imports of elk are likely, but they have yet to confirm a source for those animals.

The elk are located in the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in Logan and Mingo counties.

This story originally appeared in the Herald Dispatch, a publication in Huntington, West Virginia.

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