WVU genomics lab assesses stability of West Virginia elk herd as species recovers from 200-year absence

A symbol of strength, nobility and dignity, elk are a North American icon. After vanishing from the Mountain State in the 1800s, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (WVDNR) launched a long-brewing plan to reintroduce elk to the state in 2016. Nearly a decade later, West Virginia University researchers are working to ensure the population remains healthy and strong for future elk tourism and hunting opportunities.

The WVU Wild Genomics Lab is no stranger to underdog success stories. Dr. Amy Welsh, professor of Wildlife and Fisheries Resources at the WVU Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, has led genetic assessments of several other species reintroduced to West Virginia. This includes an ongoing study of river otters and a previous evaluation of fishers — the latter of which demonstrated exactly what researchers hope will also be true for elk in West Virginia: adequate genetic diversity, interbreeding between West Virginia individuals and surrounding states and, as a result, a viable and strong population.

The West Virginia elk herd began with just 24 elk brought from Kentucky to the most suitable place in the state identified for elk management: a former coalfield in southern West Virginia, now known as Tomblin Wildlife Management Area. Since then, several subsequent introductions and reproduction within the introduced elk has brought the herd’s numbers to around 200 strong, traversing the mountains of West Virginia and following the footsteps of those from nearly two centuries prior.

Although elk have been missing from West Virginia’s food chain for so long, they’ve returned to their niche easily. Elk play a vital role in the ecosystem, where they act as a food source for predators and scavengers, disperse seeds and maintain grasslands through their grazing and, overall, help balance the ecosystem.

The herd has not been without challenges, however. Elk of different subspecies from both Kentucky and Arizona have been introduced to West Virginia: Manitoban elk and Rocky Mountain elk. Some of the animals died due to a parasitic brain worm transmitted by white-tailed deer, the latter of which is a prime concern of the lab’s research efforts. 

Using DNA extracted from tissue, the lab has begun examining the genetic diversity of the herd — the biological variation within a population’s genetic characteristics. By analyzing the genes of individual elk, the lab is searching for signs of inbreeding, reproduction between the two subspecies and signs of genetic predispositions to parasite-induced fatalities.

Post-reintroduction genetic assessments are not a routine practice, which Welsh attributes to a focus on the greater picture — population size and whether the species can be harvested — as opposed to the finer details.

“There really hasn’t been much of a focus on genetic assessments,” said Welsh. “You might have a decent number of individuals, but are they all genetically the same? It’s a change in paradigm in management agencies realizing that a lot of times those finer scale questions are important in truly assessing whether or not you have reintroduction success.”

High levels of genetic diversity support a population’s overall health and resilience through environmental changes such as diseases, parasites, climate change and other stressors. This enables the species to thrive short and long-term, and, for the West Virginia elk herd, long-term success means greater opportunities for elk tourism and hunting opportunities — some of the WVDNR’s core goals for the population.

“[Elk tourism] provides a greater opportunity for getting people involved in conservation. You don’t have to already be interested in conservation to want to go see these large, charismatic animals,” said graduate student Adam Cook. “If you can draw people in with something cool that most people want to see, like elk, it helps them care more about everything the WVDNR is doing and become more engaged in certain natural resources aspects of the state.”

Elk are a great bridge for conservationists and hunters alike, said Welsh. Both communities have investments in the population’s long-term success, and the WVDNR’s efforts receive support from both groups.

The public interest in elk has not gone unnoticed by state officials — early this year, Gov. Jim Justice announced an almost $7 million investment in elk tourism, including a visitors’ center and observation tower in Tomblin Wildlife Management Area, allowing tourists and locals alike to view the majestic animals in their natural habitat.

Welsh and Cook’s genetic studies are expected to conclude by the end of Cook’s thesis in May 2025, at which point results of the study will be able to advise WVDNR on future management efforts of the West Virginia elk herd. 

For more information on the state elk herd and tourism opportunities, visit WVDNR.gov/plants-animals/elk.