By Molly Kirk
Elk have been spotted in Breaks Interstate Park! According to Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) Elk Project Leader Jackie Rosenberger and Austin Bradley, superintendent of Breaks Interstate Park, it’s an encouraging first step toward elk viewing in the park. A small group of bull elk were spotted in Breaks Interstate Park in February—the first time the species has been seen in the park’s boundaries in more than 100 years. DWR re-introduced elk into the Buchanan County area from 2012 to 2014, and the herd is thriving and expanding.
“The elk we saw in Breaks are part of a bachelor group that overwinters in the Breaks area and grazes just outside the park, but like clockwork they arrive in December and leave in late February. We’ve not seen an elk since February,” said Bradley. But while elk aren’t consistently inhabiting the park, ongoing habitat work in the park aims to increase the time elk spend inside the park’s boundaries, and therefore boosting the odds of wildlife viewers to see them.
Part of that habitat work is thanks to DWR’s 2021 Explore the Wild Sweepstakes, which raised funds for elk habitat work through a sweepstakes with elk viewing-specific prizes. “A main goal for the park and DWR in doing the sweepstakes in 2021 was to raise money to do the habitat work for the elk in the park, which would be a step toward creating a great public land opportunity for folks to see the elk,” said Rosenberger.
“The cool thing about the sweepstakes was that our goal was $21,000 for the habitat work,” she continued. “We raised more than double that, so we were able to spend money on a parking lot in that area and a viewing platform overlooking that field, so it’s going to be even better than originally planned.”
Currently, Breaks Interstate Park and DWR coordinate elk-viewing tours by bus that take wildlife viewers to private lands for elk-viewing opportunities. Those will continue, but Bradley has a vision for the future of Breaks Interstate Park and elk. “Eventually, we’d like people to be able to have the kind of experience you can have in a park out west, where you could be camping in our campground in September and hear elk bugling outside of the campsite,” he said. “We started doing the tours in partnership with DWR in 2012. But ultimately, the goal has always been to get a viewable population that you don’t have to pay to go on a special tour to see.”
With that in mind, when Breaks Interstate Park revamped their power infrastructure, they intentionally re-planted the right-of-way areas around it in a seed mixture that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation and Southwest Virginia Sportsmen had worked with DWR to distribute in the original elk release site. “To some extent, we’ve been working on habitat since 2017,” said Bradley. “Then with the sweepstakes project, DWR came in and converted a six-acre field from completely overgrown with invasive autumn olive to being sown in a mixture of warm-season grasses. I think just getting grazing areas for them in the park was what ultimately drew them in.”
“I think it’s a great start for the future. I knew that elk were going to find that habitat; it actually happened a little bit quicker than I anticipated. But it’s only going to get better,” Rosenberger added.
Bradley notes that while visitors to Breaks Interstate Park probably can’t expect to see elk consistently yet, there is a wide variety of wildlife able to be viewed in the area. The park and DWR both installed game cameras near the habitat work area. “The trail cameras have shown us that a lot of other species have really utilized that habitat work, including tons of deer, including some very large bucks, lots of turkey, lots of bobcats and coyotes, and black bears,” said Bradley. “The park is a site on the Virginia Bird and Wildlife Trail. We opened a series of trails, the Flatwoods Multi-Use Trail System, around this habitat work. Birders use the area; it’s more open habitat than you commonly encounter in the Breaks area, so it attracts different bird species. Being on Pine Mountain, we’re on a migration path for warblers and other birds. It’s great for wildlife viewing and hiking.”
This year’s Virginia Elk Experience Sweepstakes is open for entries! You can be in the running to win some great prizes and donate to future elk habitat work! The sweepstakes winner, randomly selected, will receive: a special guided elk tour and cabin stay at Breaks Interstate Park along with a number of other great prizes.