By Shannon Bowling & Jessica Ruthenberg/DWR
Photos by Mike Roberts
Between 2012 and 2014, a total of 71 adult elk and four calves (born during the restoration) were relocated into Buchanan County, Virginia, from southeast Kentucky. By September 2020, Virginia’s restored elk herd was estimated at more than 250 individuals. Read more about elk restoration in Virginia in Elk in Virginia: Return of a Native Species.
The opportunity for wildlife watching related to elk is a unique experience. Elk are a large, charismatic mammal that provide awe-inspiring opportunities for not only the eyes but also for the ears. The majestic image of a bull elk backdropped by rolling green hills can only be outdone by the experience of hearing that same bull let out a loud and long bugle. Because of elks’ herding mentality, the opportunity to watch a group of 50-plus cows and bulls is not uncommon or short-lived in areas that provide cool temperatures and quality habitat. The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) has recognized the opportunities that elk provide for wildlife watching and has worked on multiple avenues for the people to enjoy elk.
Since 2018, DWR has worked with local partners (Southwest Virginia Sportsman, iGo Technologies, CNX Gas, Vansant Lumber, and Appalachian Power) in Buchanan County to operate webcams aimed at providing a virtual experience to view elk and other wildlife on private property near Grundy. These webcams have attracted more than 50,000 views per year and enable those in other parts of Virginia, other states, and even other countries the ability to view wildlife from the comfort of their home. The Elk Cam is usually live and viewable from July through November. This time frame allows us to see cow elk returning from their calving areas with their young all the way through the peak breeding activity later in the fall.
Elk Viewing Area
DWR has worked with many of the same partners as the Elk Cam to help provide 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 handicapped 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. The peak of activity for wildlife viewing will be during the cooler months in spring and fall and during the first and last hours of the day. 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.
Another great opportunity to view elk and other wildlife is to take part in one of the guided elk tours offered through the Breaks Interstate Park. The paid tours by Breaks Interstate Park are offered to the public during select dates in the spring and fall. The park also offers tours for school groups. Beyond the Breaks Tours, tours by Southwest Virginia Sportsman and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation volunteers are offered to local groups and organizations. 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.
One event that has risen up as a result of ecotourism and wildlife watching related to elk is the Southern Gap Elk Fest. The inaugural running of this event in 2020, sponsored by the Southern Gap Visitors Center, Buchanan County, and SWVA Sportsman and supported by DWR, was a three-day event celebrating and promoting outdoor recreation, wildlife education, shooting sports, and all things elk. The 2020 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.