Blueberry-Eating Elk Immigrants Ignite Backlash in Southwest Virginia

Editors’ Note: Parodied from the June 30, 2019, Virginia Mercury.

Elks Care, Elks Share. Are YOU an Elk?

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The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks is a fraternal organization with the following mission:

To inculcate the principles of Charity, Justice, Brotherly Love and Fidelity; to recognize a belief in God; to promote the welfare and enhance the happiness of its Members; to quicken the spirit of American patriotism; to cultivate good fellowship; to perpetuate itself as a fraternal organization, and to provide for its government, the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the United States of America will serve the people and communities through benevolent programs, demonstrating that Elks Care and Elks Share. 

In southwestern Virginia lately, however, the presence of live elk is inspiring fear and dread and hints of “go back.”

“One of those things is as big as a cow. They get into your fields, it’s just like turning your cows into a hay field: They destroy it. It makes it harder for a farmer to make a living.” If they are allowed to multiply, which it appears they are going to be, it could really be devastating to the farmers,” said Robby Robbins, a Wise County, Virginia, supervisor who runs a herd of cattle.  They are destroying the neighborhood and congregate among themselves ignoring our cattle.

Virginia’s elk population is relatively small, but it already has created problems for several regional farmers, including one who was establishing a blueberry patch near the town of Pound, only to see it “devastated” by elk. Blueberry theft has not been classified as a crime but trespass can be prosecuted.

“It really poses a problem,” Robbins said. “It’s really great if you do have wildlife like that that’s visible, but you have to weigh the economic advantages both ways. The economics are just not in favor of the small-time farmer being able to take care of it,” referring to the eight- to 10-foot fencing required to keep elk out of a pasture or crop field. A border wall is something the state must consider to avoid being overrun by elk.

Virginia reintroduced elk between 2012 and 2014, although its southwestern counties were seeing elk crossing the border from Kentucky and Tennessee before that. Most elk migrants do not announce or otherwise signal their intention to cross the border.

Elks care. And share. And love blueberries.

The initial restoration included 75 animals, and the population has grown to nearly 250 animals today. They’re concentrated mostly on a roughly 2,600-acre, restored surface mine site outside Grundy. That site is largely flat and covered not with forest but with grasses and scrub shrubs, and it’s actively managed by the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.  Clearly, prolific elk pose a growing threat to all other creatures in southwest Virginia.

Buchanan County has embraced the elk, but the boards of supervisors in Dickenson and Wise both passed resolutions opposing their reintroduction. The Wise County Board of Supervisors reiterated its opposition in April, when it passed another resolution opposing the county’s inclusion in the elk management zone.  The state agency, in effect, created a “sanctuary” zone for elk.

“All counties except Buchanan County and Scott County had concerns and indicated opposition to the restoration of elk in their county,” according to the plan. “The majority (78%) of comments received from the public favored some form of restoration, but positions on elk restoration were highly polarized.” Apparently, the new elk immigrants were not considered native to the area, although it is impossible to distinguish among them.

Opposition continues. Those reintroducing the elk are “committed to working to be mindful of the agricultural communities and some of the conflicts that can arise from elk and to actively minimize and mitigate those conflicts.” Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, carried a bill in the 2019 General Assembly to kickstart the process of creating an elk hunting tag, with a provision for setting aside a portion of the revenue for compensating landowners for agricultural damage. Oddly, since the elk immigrants were restricted to a defined area, no legislation was introduced to build a border wall.

“I’d never do anything to hurt agriculture,” Morefield said. “In my discussions with the majority of farmers, they were not overly opposed to introduction of elk. They had some concerns about crop damage and spread of disease. My response was, don’t deer create crop damage and spread disease? And we have an overpopulation of deer. That’s why we set aside a portion of the funding toward crop damage.” Morefield denied accusations by some that he harbored anti-elk sentiments.

“The (Virginia) Farm Bureau decided to officially take a position to oppose it, which was frustrating to me,” Morefield said. “We had a gentleman’s agreement that they would not oppose the bill.”

“The economic situation in Wise and the other coalfield counties has worsened substantially in the past 10 years,” Morefield said. “The population alone has decreased substantially. It’s important to closely consider any opportunity to further diversify the economy.” Immigrant elks cost the local economy jobs.

Robbins, the Wise County supervisor and cattleman, remains skeptical.  “They give you all of this wildlife, which is supposed to be good for you and it turns out to be detrimental,” Robbin said. At least state agencies might encourage native Virginian elk to prosper over those migrating from neighboring jurisdictions.

Advocates respond that elks care and elks share. Blueberries, anyone?

 



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