An adult male elk raises his head above a patch of tall green grass. His tall curving horns are sheathed in soft velvet.
Protecting Biodiversity A bull elk in velvet, Breaks, Virginia. © Steven David Johnson

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Elk restoration and outdoor tourism efforts in Virginia get big boost

TNC's acquisition of 1,100 acres in Buchanan and Dickenson Counties supports the continuation of successful elk restoration in the region.

The Nature Conservancy today announced its acquisition of 1,100 acres in Buchanan and Dickenson Counties that wildlife leaders refer to as ground zero for elk restoration in Virginia.

Known locally as the Baker Tracts, the property—portions of which have been mined in the past—includes the site where elk were successfully reintroduced to Virginia in 2012 after the eastern subspecies (Cervus canadensis canadensis) was hunted to extinction in the 1800s. The property features two wildlife viewing stations and is the site of guided elk tours conducted by the Southwest Virginia Sportsman, Breaks Interstate Park and other partners.

TNC's acquisition and ownership of this land provides long-term certainty that it will be protected for many years to come, supporting the continuation of the successful elk restoration in the region. Generous support for the land purchase was provided by the Worrell Family, Genan Foundation and the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation.

“What’s so good about The Nature Conservancy is that they’re committed to figuring out how to strike the right balance between responsible development for communities and conserving large blocks of nature so that species like elk can survive,” says Leon Boyd, Board Member of the Southwest Virginia Sportsmen and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Elk are majestic creatures, and we look forward to sharing their charismatic personalities with more people.”

Groups like the Southwest Virginia Sportsmen, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, and other local and national conservation organizations have worked closely over the past decade with the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to provide funding and the work needed to transform this former surface mine site into quality elk habitat. This habitat work has been focused on improving soil quality, mechanically removing invasive plant species and woody vegetation, and planting seed mixes that provide quality forage and cover for elk.

Elk, which are native to Virginia, were brought to the Baker Tract from eastern Kentucky in 2012 and are a part of the Rocky Mountain subspecies (Cervus cervus nelson). After rigorous disease testing, they were quarantined for several weeks on the property in order to get acclimated to the new environment. Within the past ten years, the herd has grown from 71 adult elk and 4 calves to more than 250 individuals. The elk herd utilizes the quality habitat on the new TNC preserve as well as other nearby lands where local partners are managing and improving vegetation conditions to be more “elk friendly”.

“The Nature Conservancy’s ownership of the Baker Tract is really a milestone for this elk restoration project,” says Tom Hampton, Lands and Access Manager of the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources who has been involved in the effort since the very beginning. “We began this project a decade ago on private land out of necessity, but under The Nature Conservancy’s ownership, we can now focus on moving towards managed public access to support wildlife tourism in Southwest Virginia.”

This announcement comes nearly two years after TNC arranged the acquisition of 253,000 acres in the Central Appalachian Mountains, one of the most important areas for climate resiliency in North America. The Cumberland Forest Project was developed to show that investments in nature can yield financial returns and conservation results while returning value to local communities.

“We’re thrilled to contribute to this monumental effort to support elk restoration in Virginia,” says Brad Kreps, Director of TNC's Clinch Valley Program. “When the Baker family reached out to us about possibly purchasing this property after the Cumberland Forest Project was announced, we realized that our acquisition and protection of these lands could really boost the efforts of our partners to create high quality elk habitat and contribute to the long-term goal of restoring these beautiful animals to Buchanan County and surrounding areas.””

Looking forward, TNC intends to work with local elk restoration leaders like Leon Boyd and Tom Hampton to expand public access for elk viewing, boosting ecotourism opportunities in Southwest Virginia.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.