By Shannon Bowling and Jessica Ruthenberg
Did you know that there are elk in Virginia? The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) worked with partners to restore elk to southwest Virginia between 2012 and 2014. Elk historically roamed through Virginia, but by the late 1800s they had gone extinct due to overhunting and loss of habitat. During the restoration, a total of 71 adult elk and four calves (born during that timeframe) were relocated into Buchanan County, Virginia, from southeast Kentucky. The restoration was successful–by September 2020, Virginia’s restored elk herd was thriving with more than 250 individuals.
The restoration of elk to Virginia brought with it a new and exciting opportunity to observe these large, charismatic mammals in the Commonwealth. Elk provide awe-inspiring experiences for both the eyes and the ears. The majestic image of a male elk, or bull, sporting his large impressive antlers backdropped by rolling green hills can only be outdone by the experience of hearing that same bull let out a loud and long bugle, the elk’s unique bellowing call. Because of their herding mentality, the opportunity to watch a group of 50-plus elk is not uncommon in areas that provide cool temperatures and quality habitat. DWR wants everyone to enjoy the experience of watching Virginia’s elk. Here are the best ways to watch them.
Since 2018, DWR has worked with local partners (Southwest Virginia Sportsmen, iGo Technologies, CNX Gas, Vansant Lumber, and Appalachian Power) in Buchanan County to operate Elk Cam, a livestreaming webcam that provides a virtual experience to view elk and other wildlife on private property near Grundy, Virginia. These webcams have attracted over 50,000 views per year and enable people living in other parts of the Commonwealth, other states, and even other countries the ability to view elk and other wildlife from the comfort of their home.
The elk cam usually broadcasts from late August through November. This time frame provides a look at the female elk, or cows, returning from their calving areas with their young all the way through the peak breeding activity later in the fall. Look for the DWR Elk Cam to go live this year on the week of August 23. During August and most of September, the prime hours to tune into the elk cam and see wildlife activity will be early in the morning, during the first couple hours after sunrise, and at dusk, the last couple hours prior to sunset. As the daytime temperatures turn cooler, that prime time window will expand.
Elk Viewing Area
To provide an in-person elk viewing opportunity, the DWR worked with many of the same partners as the Elk Cam to help provide an Elk Viewing Area, which contains multiple elk viewing platforms on a Buchanan County property in Vansant, accessible from the Southern Gap Outdoor Adventure Center. A designated site on the Virginia Bird & Wildlife Trail, these three sheltered platforms have bench seating, are accessible, and overlook managed wildlife habitat areas that provide visitors the opportunity to view elk, white-tailed deer, turkey, grassland birds, butterflies, and the occasional black bear. An estimated 8,000-10,000 visitors frequent this area every year to view elk and other wildlife, a number that is sure to only grow.
Because elk are large animals and need shaded areas to maintain their body temperature, you won’t often catch a glimpse of an elk in the open during the middle hours of the day, especially during the summer months. Similar to the Elk Cam, the prime hours to observe elk in the viewing area are early morning, during the first couple hours after sunrise, and at dusk, the last couple hours prior to sunset. Again, as the daytime temperatures turn cooler, that time window will expand.
DWR is excited to offer a new opportunity to view elk this fall—guided elk tours that will be hosted by DWR and other partners in Buchanan County. These elk tours will be offered on Thursday evenings starting in mid-September and continuing through October. Tours will be limited in capacity and participants will be required to pre-register through the DWR website. Tour registration will be closed 24 hours prior to any tour date. Learn More »
Another great opportunity to view elk and other wildlife is to participate in the guided elk tours with Breaks Interstate Park. The Park offers these paid tours to the public during select dates in the spring and fall. A meal and transportation are included with the Park’s tours. All of these tour opportunities are made possible through agreements with private landowners to access properties not currently open to the public and offer some of the best habitat and opportunities to view elk.
Southern Gap Elk Fest
The first annual Southern Gap Elk Fest debuted in 2020 as a result of the increased nature tourism and wildlife watching related to elk. This event, sponsored by the Southern Gap Visitors Center, Buchanan County, and SWVA Sportsmen and support by DWR, was a three-day event celebrating and promoting outdoor recreation, wildlife education, shooting sports, and all things elk. Elk Fest included guided elk tours at both dawn and dusk and was a great way to draw visitors from all over the Commonwealth and the surrounding states into the Coalfields region of Virginia.
A second elk fest is in the works for 2021 and is to be held October 13-16. Stay tuned to the Southern Gap website for more information.