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Appalachia’s Conservation Story

A bus ride up a mountain to see elk at Breaks Interstate Park

MAY 2022

PHOTO BY JAMIE WULFEKUHLE-ZAWESKI

by Amanda Creasey, Outdoors Writer

At 4:45 on a Saturday afternoon in mid-March, I climb aboard a large, white bus idling in a parking lot on the Virginia side of Breaks Interstate Park. For a trip that begins at 5 p.m., I’m a little on the late side, and most of the seats are already taken, so I find myself a spot in the front, directly behind our driver. He introduces himself as Avery and speaks in a vernacular I’ve heard only in this part of the country — a sort of southern drawl, without the drawl.

Avery shifts the bus into drive, and using a microphone wired to speakers throughout the bus, tells us there are 23 guests on today’s elk tour in southwest Virginia. We’re lucky: A 9-inch snowfall forced the cancellation of last Saturday’s tour. Today, though, the weather has been sunny and nearly 70 degrees, with a warm breeze chasing clouds across the sky all afternoon.

PHOTO BY JAMIE WULFEKUHLE-ZAWESKI

Visitors disembark from the elk bus. (Photos By: Jamie Wulfekuhle-Zaweski)

Our bus lumbers along the road. On one side, steep stone outcroppings stand solid and stoic. On the other, the Russell Fork River rolls past tin-roofed houses nestled against steep cliff faces. I catch sight of a blue heron standing, statuesque, in its waters.

A LOST POPULATION

Every now and again, Avery’s voice pours from the speakers. We learn that until the late 19th century, Eastern elk, an elk subspecies, were native in this area. In 1855, the last Eastern elk in Virginia was harvested and the subspecies was declared extinct in 1877. Rocky Mountain elk, however, remained abundant in the west. To replenish their elk populations, many states, including Virginia, purchased Rocky Mountain elk at $3 a head.

Unfortunately, Virginia’s efforts failed. Rocky Mountain elk are grazers, whereas Eastern elk are foragers. Unaccustomed to the foraging that came naturally to the Eastern elk, the relocated RockyMountain elk died off. Decades would pass before another attempt would be made at repopulating Virginia’s lost elk population.

The location for a second attempt became available in 2007, when a strip mine operation closed near the Virginia-Kentucky border. The barren mountaintop, blasted flat for coal mining, bore a damaged ecosystem resembling the plains, an altered landscape that could be reclaimed as the perfect habitat for the grazing Rocky Mountain elk. In the mid-2000s, restoration efforts began, and 75 elk were transported from nearby Kentucky.

At the last count in 2021, more than 300 elk roamed the makeshift plains of the flat-topped mountain. The success has been so complete that it is often referred to as Appalachia’s Greatest Conservation Story. The population has recovered enough for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to offer a lottery for an elk hunt in October. (The application period for the tags closed in March.)

For those uninterested in hunting, but in photographing or simply seeing the majestic animals, the Breaks Interstate Park elk tour is a phenomenal option. Whether in the spring or fall, the tours boast a 100% success rate of witnessing elk.

ANTLER BUSINESS

Spring tours, like the one I’m on, feature calves, as well as bull elk that shed their antlers, only to grow new ones come June. According to Avery, elk antlers are the fastest growing mammalian bone matter, capable of growing 1 inch a day, with the potential to weigh 30 pounds. Sharp-eyed tour participants who spot an antler shed can keep it, providing it can be safely retrieved.

In the spring, bulls, cows and calves gather in large, placid groups. In some cases, small clusters of bachelors, some with only one antler, stick together peacefully, biding their time until fall.

Fall tours take place during the rut, and feature contests of dominance between bull elk eager to form harems for the mating season. Guests on these tours can expect to be treated to the ephemeral vocalization known as bugling, a bull elk’s assertion of dominance, reminiscent of the sound of a whale’s song.

ELK WATCH

After roughly 25 minutes of driving along the Russell Fork River, our bus labors up a curvy, gray, gravel drive towards the flattened peak of the mine-turned-mountain. No sooner have we crested the first hill than we spot our first grouping of elk, more than 60 of them: cows, calves and bulls.

Some stand, some lay, their legs folded beneath them. A few languidly turn to face our bus, gnawing nonchalantly on their cuds. The mane of one of the bulls blows majestically in the stiff breeze. Avery cuts the engine and the throaty grumble of the bus gives way to a chorus of spring peepers. He tells us to “talk low and move slow” as we disembark, which we are permitted to do only if the elk are at least 60 yards away.

I stand with my back to the bus, facing the herd and a backdrop of mountains. There aren’t many trees on the peak of this mountain sliced flat, and their branches, still stark and naked, resemble the antlers of a bull elk. It strikes me that the trees, which dropped their leaves months ago, are preparing to burst into bud just as the elk begin dropping their antlers.

I am rolling this thought around in my mind when, high and faint, piercing the air above the peepers’ cries, I hear a screech or whistle, like a screaming firework — a bugle, rare in the spring. My fellow tour guests and I are treated to it twice during our tour.

When the group has taken its fill of photos, we board the bus once more, and head further up the mountain, to a large, flat, grassy area to eat barbecue from a food truck in nearby Haysi. We eat our barbecue from containers at an elevation of roughly 2,300 feet, enjoying panoramic views of the mountains. Five bull elk graze in a little valley to one side.

I watch the shadow of a mountain creep across the hills, each one a chin stubbly with still barren trees. In the distance, blue mountain peaks form the choppy, angular waves of rough seas. A startled rabbit skitters across the grass. Avery walks around, offering guests local fare — catfish nuggets. He runs out before he gets to me.

When there is more shadow than sun on the flat top and the peaks and valleys that surround it, we pile back onto the bus in search of more elk. Our efforts are quickly rewarded. The bus gets as close as 30 yards to another large herd. Avery lets guests look from the open door, but explains we are too close to disembark.

HEADING HOME

More than 300 elk roam the flat-topped mountain plains. (Photos by: Jamie Wulfekuhle-Zaweski)

As we head down the mountain, twilight gives way to darkness, and I can no longer see the Russell Fork flowing beside the ribbon of asphalt that hugs the curves of its banks. I sit behind Avery, trying to see past my reflection in the dark window.

Failing, I glance up at the rearview mirror, and see dozens of faces: a young boy, an amorous couple, an old man. Today, we all shared in a little bit of history, a little bit of wonder, a little bit of the natural world and humankind’s ability both to destroy and rebuild it, to exploit and redeem it.

Humankind drove the Eastern elk to extinction. But humankind also saw the opportunity for reclamation and repopulation, repurposing this barren wasteland into plains and repopulating it with elk.

These elk, I realize, are more than Appalachia’s Greatest Conservation Story. They are evidence of stewardship and care, of an infinite capacity for hope and perseverance. It makes a trip up a mountain on the last day of winter less of a bumbling bus ride and more of a journey.

Elk Tours: Reservations required: breakspark.com/elk-tours Dinner provided: $35 for adults – $20 for children 12 and under; Tours in March, April, May and August, September and October

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