There Are Elk in West Virginia

Elk in West Virginia

Thinking of heading out west to visit the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier National Park? Is one of the items on your list to see some elk?

All of the above choices are great places to do just that, and much more of course, but there’s another option that may be closer to home for you to check those elk off your list.

There are elk in West Virginia and they live on the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area.

Tomblin Wildlife Management Area
Tomblin WMA is home to the West Virginia Elk herd

Elk in West Virginia

Once native to the state of West Virginia, elk had been absent from within our borders since 1875. After 140 years, the reintroduction of elk in West Virginia began in 2016.

24 elk from Arizona were captured and transported to West Virginia. They were relocated within the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area. The WMA provided adequate habitat and space for an elk herd to thrive.

The WV DNR has been working hard for the past eight years to re-establish the West Virginia elk herd. Since 2018, 57 additional elk have been introduced to the state – 15 from Kentucky and 42 more from Arizona. As a result, the herd numbered 110 elk at the end of 2023.

And they aren’t slowing down. 40 more elk are planned to be released into Logan County’s Tomblin WMA this year.

Just this month, 17 more elk arrived from Arizona with 23 more planned to arrive soon.

Today, there are 127 elk in West Virginia after having been gone for 150 years. We set out to Tomblin Wildlife Management Area to try and find them. Follow along on our adventure to find out how you too can see elk in WV.

Where To Find Elk in West Virginia

The West Virginia Elk herd is located on the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area. I have seen elk in their habitat out west but I may be slightly more impressed seeing them in Appalachia.

I decided to take advantage of a warm February day and take the trip down to the Tomblin WMA before the cold front pushed in again. Located just a few miles from the town of Logan, the Tomblin WMA covers just over 25,000 acres.

Or as I told my daughter for perspective, roughly the same area as 160,000 suburban homes if it were flat land somewhere.

Truth is, the WMA is a great place for the reintroduction of elk into West Virginia as opposed to any residential development.

This joint effort between WV DNR, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and The Conservation Fund has reclaimed old coal strip mining property in both Logan and Mingo counties.

With their combined efforts they have turned it into a useful habitat for not only elk, but black bear, whitetail deer, turkey and other usual suspects of the WV woodlands.

During my trek through the area hoping to spot elk I was able to find some turkey tracks leading into some thick brush where I could also hear them.

Turkey are pretty tough hide and seek competitors at times, usually the champions, so I did not get eyes on them.

Before heading down to the area I found a pretty decent map of Tomblin WMA and I quickly realized that there were about 30 parking areas to choose from to get a shot at sighting these massive creatures.

Tomblin Wildlife Management Area

Realizing I needed to narrow this down, I pulled up google maps to use the satellite images. From there I referenced the pdf map versus the satellite image the best I could.

I had found what I thought to be pens and food plots for the elk and decided on a parking location.

I was looking at about an hour and half drive from the I-64 corridor down WV RT-10 to the area. If you aren’t used to winding WV roads or are prone to motion sickness, bust out that Dramamine.

Especially if you are going this route. US-119/ Corridor G from Charleston isn’t as curvy and is faster, but if you’re a flatlander it might still get ya.

My drive was a great one for February. Sunny and 60˚ F. What better way to spend the day than chasing elk in West Virginia.

We had some pretty strong winds from the south, which I thought could be beneficial in covering my scent and noise from the herd.

On the other hand, it may help a falling tree branch decide today was my day to test my Zoleo SOS function. That is, if I were to be lucky enough to be conscious after taking a branch to the dome.

That brings up an important point to consider. Cell phone service is mostly non-existent on Tomblin WMA.

During my cruise down south, I began wondering to myself if I had chosen the right entry point to begin my search.

Tomblin WMA

There is little to no information on where the elk might be located in this massive expanse of steep, rugged hills.

There’s roughly 110 elk on the 25,000+ acres… not so great of odds. I needed to find a way to up my chances of finding the elk herd.

I recalled reading that Chief Logan State Park gives elk tours in the early fall. The park is directly off US-119 so I decided to stop by and ask around for a bit.

After speaking to a few friendly employees there, one of them at the lodge gave me directions to where he thought may be my best chance.

As I proceeded to the area he had directed me to, I had some confusion trying to find the pipe gate he had described. I found it tucked away a bit more into the woods than I expected . Seemingly, I was in the right place.

After gathering my gear and checking the time, I proceeded downhill into the area. I set a turn around time as to not be in the WMA past dark.

Immediately I felt like I was on the right path after finding elk droppings, or scat for some of you, and several hoof prints.

Elk in WV
There is no mistaking this elk track for deer tracks.

I continued on down into a meadow-like area where the indications continued, and were seemingly somewhat fresh.

Some excitement built as I came around some brush and heard some rustling, which turned out to be whitetail deer. Beautiful whitetails at that, and quite large from what I seem to be used to.

I also had forgotten, but then quickly remembered that it is currently shed season in West Virginia so none of the animals were going to have antlers.

I continued farther down this muddy road and started to lose the frequency of the elk droppings, but hoof prints still remained fresh in the mud.

Since we had some heavy rains just a few days before I continued to follow. I started to discover some strange eggs in some stagnant puddles that had me wondering what they were for a while.

Salamander Eggs

After about another mile, more of these small clear-ish, but somewhat opaque eggs appeared in another large puddle.

As I knelt down to take a closer look something barely caught my eye through the surface glare on the murky puddle.

A rather large salamander was under the gelatinous masses of eggs. After returning home I was able to identify this as a Spotted Salamander beneath the hundreds of eggs.

It was here that I discovered I had lost the quick release plate to connect the camera to the tripod. My initial reaction was irritation as I am a big believer in Leave No Trace.

And secondly, this was going to make getting a picture of this salamander more difficult because of the glare on the puddle.

If someone were watching me from afar, they probably thought I had been sampling the wild mushrooms along the way.

I had retrieved my rain jacket from my bag and draped myself with it to create a shadow over the puddle while trying to take a picture of the salamander without disturbing it or the eggs.

While it didn’t work and I’m sure it looked ridiculous to the crows that were watching me, here’s the best I got…

Spotted Salamander WV

It was turnaround time and I had not seen or heard any elk. Disappointed, I continued back toward the parking area with 4 trash items I was packing out that I found along the way.

I was getting pretty close to the end of my 6 mile wander and gave up hope. I started moving a little faster as I was no longer worried about creating noise and BAM. Elk. Right around the curve the old dirt road made through the briar bushes.

Did picking up the 4 items deliver me some good karma? I like to think so.

I watched them for about a minute to gauge what their reaction was going to be when they spotted me and also just admiring the large animals.

There are pictures all over the internet of elk, who cares if I get one? I’d rather watch them for myself.

Eight of them seemingly saw me all at once, it was a very strange feeling. I didn’t have anything to hide behind in the event they wanted to come toward me, it was all thick brush and briars. I slowly set my bag down and retrieved my camera to catch a few shots while also taking a video with my phone.

Follow us on Instagram to see the WV Elk Video

It’s truly amazing how well these animals blend in with WV’s woodlands. Some of the pictures could hardly differentiate the elk from the trees and brush behind them.

After about 5 minutes most of this small herd moved down over the hill to my left, but a couple waited behind and just kept staring. These two appeared to be momma and her young, a combination I was not willing to test.

Elk in WV
This cow elk blends in with the West Virginia landscape

A few minutes later they started making their way up the old dirt road I needed to go up.

After a few 100 yard standoffs with each other, they took off down the right side of the hill and I was free to go with the threat of being trampled much lower than it was, but also not zero.

Elk in West Virginia

Completely excited about my encounter, I hoofed it back up the rocky incline I had come down about 4- 5 hours earlier. 110 elk with 25,000 acres and I had the opportunity to see about 10 of them. Incredible.

Making the odds even more difficult is the fact that these are free-roaming elk. There are no fences. So when they decide to move along, there’s no telling where we will see them next.

One last thing about odds. I found the tripod quick release. Really? How wild is that! It was about a half mile from the car. That’s great and all, but where is this luck when I play the Powerball. I mean, I’d even settle for a match 5 with no Powerplay…

Elk Population in Surrounding States

Today, three neighboring states of West Virginia have established elk herds. Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania all have elk within the state with Kentucky having the biggest population

Kentucky

Elk were present in Kentucky until the 1880s. The efforts to reintroduce elk to Kentucky began way back in 1997.

In 1997, seven elk were released near Hazard, Kentucky and the restoration of elk in the state was underway. Elk arrived in Kentucky from Utah, Kansas, Oregon, North Dakota, Arizona, New Mexico.

By 2001, the Kentucky elk herd approached 1,500 wild elk living southeastern Kentucky.

Kentucky’s elk restoration zone encompasses 16 counties and spans 4.1 million acres. (And we thought the 25,000 acres of Tomblin WMA was big.)

Kentucky’s elk restoration program has been a resounding success. The state currently holds the biggest elk population east of the Mississippi River.

WV Elk Herd

Virginia

Like other eastern states, elk were once native to Virginia, with the last known elk killed in 1855.

The Virginia elk restoration efforts began in 2012. From 2012 to 2014, 71 elk were relocated to Virginia from Southeastern Kentucky.

Here, the Elk Management Zone (EMZ) is located in Buchanan, Dickenson, and Wise counties. Like other eastern elk herds, the Virginia elk also populate reclaimed strip mines.

By 2020 the herd numbered 250 and in 2022, Virginia hosted its first recent elk hunting season. Six tags were awarded to hunt elk in Virginia. 5 from a lottery drawing of 31,951 applicants and one auctioned off by the RMEF.

All together, the inaugural Virginia elk hunt raised $513,000 to further improve habitat for the elk.

Elk in West Virginia

Pennsylvania

The state of Pennsylvania has been releasing elk from other states as far back as 1913. 50 elk were shipped by train from Yellowstone National Park and released into Clinton and Clearfield Counties. Each elk cost the state $30.

Their efforts continued, even sustaining bull elk hunting seasons until 1930. Afterwards, the elk that remained in PA received little attention.

That changed in the 1990’s, however, when funding from the RMEF enabled increased efforts from the PA Game Commission. From there, the small elk herd began to flourish, increasing in number to 556 by the year 2000.

Efforts to restore elk in Pennsylvania has a much longer and storied history than I realized. After over a hundred years of reintroduction, the Pennsylvania herd stands at over 1,400 elk.

Hunting Elk in West Virginia

If you are interested in hunting elk in West Virginia, you may be waiting a long time.

The surrounding states of Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Virginia all have yearly elk hunts. As you can see from the statistics above, the herds are much more established in these states.

The first of West Virginia’s neighboring states to introduce elk hunting was Kentucky. In 2001, Kentucky awarded 12 elk permits and held their first elk hunt. 6 tags were for bull elk, the other 6 for cows (female).

Elk in West Virginia

All 12 hunters were successful and harvested an elk that season. Two years later Kentucky increased the number to 40 elk tags based on herd growth.

By the time the first elk hunting season took place in Kentucky, the elk population was around 1500.

As the size of the elk herd increased, so did the number of tags awarded. In 2021, 594 elk permits were awarded in Kentucky. The total number fluctuates based on herd numbers.

South of us, Virginia held its most recent statewide elk hunt in 2022. After ten years of growth, the Virginia elk herd had grown large enough to sustain a hunting season.

In 2015, the Virginia elk population was roughly 120. Currently, there are 110 elk in West Virginia. We started with 24 elk from Arizona released in 2016. As you can see, they are successfully reproducing and increasing in number within the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area.

The West Virginia elk herd is much closer to Virginia’s than Kentucky’s. It also provides a reference to draw a comparison from.

If herd growth follows the same trajectory as the state of Virginia, we may find ourselves with an elk season in 2031. How cool would that be?

Once the current West Virginia elk herd numbers double, we would be close to supporting a yearly elk hunt within the state.

Could it take less time than that to have a WV elk hunt? Of course. Introducing more elk from out of state would accelerate herd growth decreasing the wait.

The current herd numbers just closely resemble how Virginia’s elk restoration led to an eventual hunting season.

This is all purely speculation, of course. I am not a wildlife biologist nor involved with the elk restoration program. I’m simply daydreaming and imagining the possibility of hunting elk in West Virginia.

It’s fun to think about, and would be great to see the herd grow to levels that would sustain it. And the money raised would further help the elk restoration in West Virginia.

We have a long way to go before we have a chance hunt elk in West Virginia, but that’s an adventure for another day.

Final Thoughts

While we managed to find success on our elk excursion, these results may not be typical. With only 110 elk in West Virginia you may cover a lot of ground and not see one.

Chief Logan State Park Elk

Plan ahead. Review some maps of the Tomblin WMA available online. Stop and ask questions at Chief Logan State Park. It worked out well in this case.

And if you don’t want to go it alone on WV public land, book a tour. Chief Logan State Park offers guided elk tours and you can follow the experts. They are available in September and October and frequently sell out.

Whichever route you choose to take, head south and experience the elk in West Virginia first hand.

About THe Author

Randy Gaus West Virginia Outsider

Randy Gaus

Born and raised in Wheeling, WV, Randy’s parents often took trips near and far within West Virginia that had a lasting impact on his love for the outdoors and for the state.

Randy has backpacked and hiked throughout North America, traveled to 48 US states and 19 countries, yet chooses to “make camp” in West Virginia where he loves the outdoors, the people, and the culture of Appalachia.

Randy is an honorably discharged United States Air Force veteran with service in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

More work by Randy:
Fasnacht Festival in Helvetia, WV

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