Constant vigilance keeps West Virginia’s elk out of poachers’ hands

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Conventional wisdom said police in southwestern West Virginia would have a tough time keeping elk from being poached.

Conventional wisdom was wrong.

Since elk were stocked there late in 2016, not a single animal has been killed illegally. Capt. Terry Ballard of the state Natural Resources Police said regular law-enforcement patrols, real-time electronic surveillance and a vigilant public have combined to keep the elk safe.

“Luckily, everyone seems to be minding their P’s and Q’s in regard to the elk,” Ballard said. “We haven’t had any poaching so far.”

The elk were stocked in the Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, a sprawling tract that encompasses more than 25,000 acres in Logan and Mingo counties. To help patrol all that land, the NRP hired an additional officer.

“We now have two officers in Mingo County, one in Logan County, and another in Boone County,” Ballard said. “That has helped a tremendous amount, because it allows us to be more visible within the elk management area. When people see us, they know we’re mindful of the elk and what everyone around them is doing.”

Ballard said he’s told the officers under his command “to make as many runs through the (Tomblin) area as possible, and to be as visible as possible.”

Elk are notoriously footloose, often wandering miles at a time from the release site near Holden. Ballard said keeping track of them isn’t all that difficult, though, because most of them wear GPS tracking collars that transmit their locations to overhead satellites.

“We’ve let people know that we can track these animals in real time, and that we get a mortality signal immediately when one of them dies,” Ballard said. “Poachers realize they won’t be able to get out of the hills with a poached elk before we can be there.”

Elk poaching is a bigger job than many people realize, Ballard added.

“An elk isn’t like a deer,” he explained. “If you kill a deer, you can just throw it onto the back of a four-wheeler and buzz off to the house real quick. You can’t do that with an elk.”

A good-sized buck deer might weigh 150 to 175 pounds; a good-sized bull elk could weigh as much as 1,100 pounds. For that reason alone, Ballard said, elk poaching isn’t a single-person activity.

“If they’re interested in taking the whole animal, it’s going to take a team of people,” he said. “Even if they cut the head off to get the antlers, which is common for deer, with an elk that’s still a lot to hide. You can toss a deer head into the bed of a truck and have it not be seen. You put an elk’s head and antlers in there, and you aren’t going to be able to hide them. They’re that big.”

Even if someone were brazen enough to pull it off, Ballard believes they’d almost certainly be turned in by just about any law-abiding area resident.

“The people living in Logan and Mingo counties near the elk-management areas have really embraced the animals,” he said. “They enjoy seeing them from time to time, and they like the fact they’re there.

“A lot of people call us to report anytime they see one of the elk. Certainly, if someone poached one and they heard about it, they would let us know.”

Ballard said local hunters have a vested interest in leaving the elk alone and allowing the herd to grow. The Division of Natural Resources’ management plan calls for an elk population of at least one animal per square mile to become established before hunting is allowed. Other local residents, eager just to see the animals and to reap the promised benefits of elk-related tourism to the area, also want the herd to flourish.

Getting the public to accept the presence of the elk, Ballard said, has mainly been a matter of education.

“We’ve done our best to let people know what to expect from them and how best to cohabitate with them,” he added. “Some people were afraid the elk would eat up all the acorns and take food away from deer, turkeys and bears. We let them know that elk feed mainly on grass, and they don’t usually browse for acorns. And so far, we’ve seen zero impact by the elk on other game populations in the elk management zone.”

Policing the new elk lands hasn’t been particularly difficult, but Ballard said officers have had to deal with people using all-terrain vehicles and baiting deer. Both activities are prohibited on state-owned wildlife management areas.

The practices date back to the time when large swatches of the Tomblin WMA were still under private ownership, and were leased to private hunting clubs. Neither activity is prohibited on private land, so the area’s hills and hollows were littered with bait sites and crisscrossed with ATV trails.

Those practices ended when the DNR acquired the properties in a massive land deal. Many of the former leaseholders lobbied for continued ATV use, but eventually learned that the terms of the contract between the DNR and the previous landowners specifically prohibited the agency from relaxing established regulations and allowing ATV use.

Ballard said officers have written “a few tickets” to violators since then, but not as many as they expected to.

“We’ve asked the elk biologist, Randy Kelley, to call us anytime he sees anyone in there on an ATV, or comes across ATV tracks,” he continued. “That’s worked pretty well so far.”

As for baiting, Ballard said officers have written citations for that too.

“A lot of people were in there baiting before (the DNR acquired the land),” he said. “We don’t get as many reports about bait sites as we do about ATVs, mainly because they tend to be in remote areas you have to walk to.”

Law-abiding hunters have helped officers enforce the baiting law, Ballard said.

“We get reports from hunters who come across bait sites, and since just about everyone has GPS on their cell phones, we’ve been able to get them to send us coordinates,” he explained. “That has changed the game for us a great deal. We no longer have to stumble around until we find the sites.”

Next on the DNR’s agenda will be patrolling the elk lands for people trying to find shed antlers.

“Collecting deer antlers is legal,” Ballard said. “Keeping any part of an elk is illegal, even the shed antlers. If people find them, we ask that they leave them lay. Some people have reported seeing elk sheds, and when they do, we try to go collect them just to keep other folks from picking them up and getting in trouble.”

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