BUCHANAN COUNTY, Va. (WJHL) – In February, years of work spent reintroducing one of Virginia’s native species paid off.

Elk were spotted in Breaks Interstate Park for the first time in more than a century on February 10 – giving park officials and state agencies dedicated to conservation a reason to celebrate.

News Channel 11 traveled to Buchanan County, one of the three Southwest Virginia counties making up the Elk Management Zone (EMZ), and spoke with Breaks Interstate Park Superintendent Austin Bradley. During a tour of the Elk Conservation Area, which is not located in the park but nearby, Bradley said the resurgence of elk in the area could not have happened without the help of multiple organizations.

Photo: Breaks Interstate Park Superintendent Austin Bradley speaks with News Channel 11 about the success of the elk population in Southwest Virginia. (WJHL)

“We’ve been working in the Breaks with the Department of Wildlife Resources for quite some time to try to draw the elk that surround the park into the park,” Bradley said. “They’re just such majestic animals. We know the last elk in the Breaks was probably early 1800s. So to see them finally come into the park, cross park boundaries, and take advantage of some of the habitat park we’ve done in the park is just – we’re blown away with excitement.”

Bringing the elk home

Bradley said some of the habitat work in Breaks Interstate Park included removing some invasive species and reintroducing some warm-season grasses that elk prefer.

“The habitat work, in addition to creating grazing habitat for the elk, has actually been accomplished in areas that were overgrown with invasive species,” Bradley said. The native vegetation has been a huge draw back to the park for the elk, he added.

While once native to almost all of Virginia, the last recorded elk in the Commonwealth died in the 1800s. The species disappeared from the state due to overhunting and habitat loss, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

Multiple attempts in the 1900s to reintroduce the elk failed, but the efforts that began in the 2010s have led to what is described as a stable population that can be viewed by those who make the trip to Southwest Virginia.

“Finally in 2012, the successful effort occurred – began, and of course, there’s the results behind us,” Bradley said, referencing a group of more than 60 elk in the conservation area.

Originally a group of about 75 provided to Virginia by Eastern Kentucky in the early 2010s, the herd in the EMZ has grown to roughly 250 elk total. Of those, Bradley said most are the descendants of those original 75 or have wandered across the border naturally.

“In 2020, I think the estimate was that that original herd of 75 had grown to over 250,” Bradley said.

The herd consists of multiple groups of elk spread throughout the area. Bradley said while most of the herd are descendants of the original 75, some did wander across the state border naturally.

Photo: A sign within the Elk Conservation Area near Breaks Interstate Park where tours to view the elk can be taken. (WJHL)

According to Bradley, park and wildlife officials feel this attempt to reintroduce elk will be different than the ones of the past and has the stamina to last.

“At this point, we’re fairly confident that the reintroduction in Virginia is gonna be successful,” Bradley said. “I think the Department of Wildlife Resources in Virginia and also all the Eastern states that are attempting to restore elk within their states have learned from the early 1960s, 1970s failures that occurred.”

In Kentucky, Bradley pointed to the largest herd of elk east of the Mississippi River as an example. He said a herd of roughly 12,000-13,000 calls the Bluegrass State home, and with Breaks Interstate Park being located in both Kentucky and Virginia, he feels the growing elk population in Virginia has a bright future.

The elk have no natural predators in Southwest Virginia anymore as mountain lions and wolves no longer populate the area. Bradley said disease presents the greatest danger to the creatures, which the park and the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) diligently track.

Over the past decade, instances of poaching have been limited in the EMZ and conservation area.

“Our partners with the Department of Wildlife Resources and our other law enforcement partners in the area have done a phenomenal job of protecting the herd,” Bradley said. “Poaching incidents have really been at a minimum.”

While the herd is still nowhere near Kentucky’s size and limited to the EMZ, the DWR feels the population is stable enough to withstand one annual hunt with only six licenses to harvest a bull elk issued. Those licenses are issued after a lottery held by the DWR, with one being granted to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which hosts its own raffle.

In the inaugural bull elk hunt, all six hunters were successful. The DWR reported the lottery generated more than $500,000 for conservation efforts in the Commonwealth. The lottery for the October 2023 hunt has already opened.

Viewing the elk & Breaks’ vision

The park has also started its own viewing program for visitors to see the elk in the conservation area, which Bradley said has yet to fail to deliver.

“The Breaks started viewing tours in 2012, and they have become extremely popular,” Bradley said. “We have a 100% success rate on all our tours in terms of people being able to see elk. We do the tours in the spring to coincide with calving season. Also they’re shedding antlers at that time, so a few lucky guests have actually found shed antlers and gotten to keep those.”

The tour buses used by the park on their guided viewing tours refer to the effort to bring elk back to the area as “Appalachia’s Greatest Conservation Story.”

Elk are social creatures, with the cows and adolescents largely sticking together for the majority of the year. The mature bulls enjoy the company of one another, spending the bulk of their time in “bachelor groups.”

During the rut, when the bulls look to mate, a dominant bull elk will select a group of females to form a “harem.” The rut is the most likely time to hear an elk bugle, Bradley said.

The distinct bugle of an elk is a rare sound, but Bradley said touring groups in the fall have been lucky enough to hear them.

“We also do them in the fall to coincide with the rut, which is the elk mating season,” Bradley said. “That’s when the bulls are bugling and fighting and lots of activity.”

The tours have drawn visitors from dozens of states, and Bradley said sign-ups can be completed on the Breaks Interstate Park website. The park partners with Southern Gap Adventures to conduct the tours.

Photo: The Towers Overlook at Breaks Interstate Park. (WJHL)

Breaks is also developing a series of trails that surround the reworked elk habitat in the hopes of allowing visitors to go on self-guided elk viewing trips. Those trails will be open year-round when they are completed.

“Our ultimate goal within the park is not to do guided tours on park property but just to attract elk to the park that people can hopefully see, have viewing opportunities for while they’re out hiking, mountain biking,” Bradley said.

The park’s habitat work has purposefully been done close to the camping grounds in Breaks, and Bradley hopes campers will be privy to some rare opportunities as a result.

The Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority also announced in early March that it had awarded a nearly $89,000 grant to the park for the construction of a 10-foot tall wildlife viewing tower near the elk habitat area. The DWR will also contribute $17,000 for the tower, which will be able to house 20 people for elk viewing at a time.

“We envision a time one September from now, hopefully in the near future when somebody will be camping and go to sleep to the sound of a bull elk bugling outside their tent.”