On May 18, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is scheduled to release 15 elk onto a reclaimed strip mine area in Buchanan County, the first effort to reestablish an elk herd in Virginia since the early 1900s.
It is a dream come true for Frank Kilgore, an attorney based in St. Paul, the son and grandson of coal miners, a book author and the recipient of the Virginia’s Conservationist of the Year award for his work on behalf of strip mining controls.
Kilgore was an advocate of reintroducing elk long before the DGIF recently warmed to the plan. He was a critic of DGIF officials when they opposed elk stockings, calling them “boneheads” and “knot heads”, words he sometimes applied to himself.
With the stocking effort now at hand, I had some questions for Kilgore:
Q. What sparked your interested in the restoration of elk in Virginia?
A. When I travel outside Southwest Virginia, I always look for programs and activities that draw tourists and create jobs. Elk do that very well. I have seen them out west and in Pennsylvania and Canada.
Q. Are you on better terms with the DGIF now that it has begun a release program?
A. They are knot heads and so am I, but they have the ultimate responsibility of making sure what they do is not a threat to our wildlife and the public. Some politics were involved, but when and where are they not?
Q. DGIF based its opposition to stocking elk on concern over diseases being introduced into the deer herd and livestock. Do you think that concern was overstated?
A. I think initially the resistance was mostly about Kentucky releasing elk near the Virginia border without Virginia wildlife officials being fully involved. Like most neighbors that argue, things were said that in hindsight were not accurate or productive.
Q. The Virginia Farm Bureau Federation has opposed the release of elk saying the big animals are a risk to crops, grasslands, gardens, orchards and fences. Highway accidents also have been listed as a concern. What do you say to this?
A. Then we need to eradicate all deer, cows, horses and drunks that get out into the roads. As for grass, if a few wandering elk put your pasture out of business you were on the edge anyway. Any fence that will turn deer will usually turn elk.
Q. Virginia is getting only 15 elk from Kentucky for release in Buchanan County, far fewer than it had requested. Would you have preferred a larger initial release?
A. I am just glad they are being given a chanced to show what a tourist draw and later hunting adventure they bring to Buchanan County. The county was very smart to be the one rolling out the red carpet. I suspect more will be brought over once the first herd brings in thousands of visitors.
Q. Wise and Dickenson counties were invited to join the restoration effort but elected not to take part; meanwhile, there has been strong support in Buchanan County. What made the difference?
A. Misinformation and lack of vision for eco-tourism and enhanced hunting opportunities. Elk Country, Pa. has had elk for 80 years. Why not go look at that model before saying something without the facts? Buchanan County studied the concept years ago and is ahead of the curve. What else can I say?
Q. Do you think Wise and Dickenson eventually will come around to the idea?
A. I don’t know. I do know that Buchanan County has been more aggressive in transforming its economy in preparation for when coal and gas decline greatly. Those days are nigh.
Q. How would you describe the habitat of the release area?
A. Old strip mines offering a bull elk everything he wants: Plentiful food, water and a way to keep his cows in sight. What a life.
Q. What benefits do you see from having elk in Southwest Virginia?
A. Eco-tourism business, future hunting opportunities and the pride of having these big guys back after their Eastern cousins were driven to extinction. I also worked with VDGIF to re-introduce falcons to the Breaks Interstate Park. It is wild country and needs wildlife.
Q. Do you plan to hunt elk in Virginia when that opportunity is available?
A. No. I am a weenie when it comes to shooting fellow mammals. I won’t kill my own deer, but I sure will accept the tenderloins from my buddies who do. I call it hypocrite meat pie!
Q. Kentucky reached its goal of establishing a herd of 10,000 elk well ahead of schedule. Do you think Virginia will be able to duplicate the success Kentucky has enjoyed?
A. There never will be that many if only Buchanan County hosts them. Even I think that is too many for one county.
Q. DGIF officials have used the word “amazing” to describe the support of citizens in Buchanan for the elk reintroduction. How would you describe it?
A. The folks in Buchanan County think outside the box. That is why they have a law school, a pharmacy school and are working on an optometry school. They put their money and elbow grease where their mouth is.
Q. Do you think the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has played an important support role in Virginia’s elk restoration program?
A. Certainly. They were low profile and apolitical but always ready to act when the politicians cleared the way. I think praise also goes to DGIF board members Charles Yates and Ward Burton. They made a big difference. At least they were someone the DGIF staff had to listen to.
Q. Do you think poaching will be a problem in the release area?
A. I think the citizens of Buchanan County will pounce on a poacher with both feet. It is hard to keep the killing of a thousand pound animal secret, especially after the killer has had a few beers. They will be harshly treated, then mounted.