The sun is setting as our van crests a ridge and drops into an open, savanna-like plain pockmarked by clusters of grasses and shrubs. A group of bull elk surrounds us, with cows and younger elk watching from the protection of nearby woods. The bulls are in the rut, and they don’t seem to care much about our presence as they lock antlers and spar over mates. The occasional, high-pitched whine of a bugle pierces the twilight. “Wow,” whispers one of my students, “this feels like a safari.”
Rather than being on some exotic excursion, we’re deep in the heart of the Appalachian coalfields a few miles outside of the southwest Virginia town of Grundy. That grass-covered “savanna” is in reality a former surface mine, repurposed and converted into an elk reintroduction site by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. I’ve brought my students here as part of their Vertebrate Zoology course at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise to tour the site and see a species that has been but a mere echo in these mountains for generations.
Elk are not the first animals that come to mind when thinking of native Appalachian wildlife, but the species was a common sight in these hills prior to European settlement. Names like Elk Garden and Elkhorn City, in fact, still grace valleys and towns in the region. Thanks to overhunting and the loss of habitat, though, the Eastern Elk – one of six subspecies that once roamed North America – declined rapidly through the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The species was gone from eastern North America by the late 1800s, with the last known elk in Virginia killed by the time of the Civil War.
Since that time, conservationists have planned the return of this species to Appalachian forests. Following failed attempts in some states in the early to mid-1900s, more concerted efforts began with the aim of rewilding this species into the East. Kentucky established a reintroduction program in 1997, with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park following suit in 2001. Virginia started reintroducing elk in 2012, with the coalfields of the Appalachian Plateau in the state’s southwesternmost corner targeted for restoration efforts.
Old surface mines seem like an odd choice for restoring native wildlife, but they’ve been a perfect fit for Virginia’s elk. Reclaimed minelands create a patchwork of open habitat within the larger context of central Appalachia’s diverse hardwood forests. Unlike agricultural lands, most of these former mines also have the added benefit of not being used by humans for growing crops or raising livestock – factors that might generate conflicts with newly introduced elk. This open space, combined with nearby forests, provides ample room for elk to graze while also giving them access to protective cover.
That’s the case on the mountaintop mine our class visits above Grundy. The flattened ridgetop contains a mixture of vegetation planted to improve food sources for the elk, and falling off all around us are hillsides cloaked in thick forest. The higher peaks of Virginia’s Blue Ridge and Kentucky are visible on the horizon. As the evening progresses, more elk emerge from the protection of these woods into the mine itself. There is no fencing penning the elk into the mine, and even though the elk are free to roam – and occasionally do – many of them stick close to home.
For those of us living and working in Appalachia, surface mines like these are a looming specter with ties to both environmental destruction and economic distress. Regardless of the future of the coal industry, though, the 70,000 or so acres that have already been surface-mined in Virginia’s coalfields aren’t going away. Creative solutions for reusing those lands are beginning to take hold across the mountains, and conservation efforts like those involving Virginia’s growing elk herd are an important part of that mix.
So far, those efforts are working. Virginia’s herd is thriving on the former mines above Grundy, and Kentucky’s elk occasionally make forays across the border into southwest Virginia. This past fall, an elk presumably from North Carolina’s herd in the Smokies was found roaming the mountains of upstate South Carolina – the first such sighting in more than 200 years. It might take generations, but elk once again becoming a common sight across these mountains seems to be a question of when more than if.
It’s a question that isn’t lost on my students. “Can you imagine what it would be like hearing that noise all the time?” one of them asks as a bull’s bugle ricochets into the night. It doesn’t take long before another student corrects him: one day, he acknowledges, you probably will.
Read more of Dr. Smith’s work at VoicesforBiodiversity.org!
Wally Smith is an Assistant Professor of Biology at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He has a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Alabama, with a specialization in the conservation and management of amphibian biodiversity. He currently serves as the director of the Southwest Virginia Citizen Science Initiative (CSI), a student-led project at UVa-Wise aimed at involving residents of rural communities across the central Appalachian Mountains in conservation science. You can follow Wally and Southwest Virginia CSI’s work on Twitter (@SWVirginiaCSI).