Words and Images from Ed Felker

Elk

The Man Behind Virginia’s Elk

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Leon Boyd is a busy man: Vice President at Noah Horn Well Drilling, board member of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s Virginia district chair and chair of the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter. So when I found myself with a free day while on vacation in southwest Virginia this past spring, I hesitated to call him.

“So, I’m kind of in the area. I know it’s a long shot, but is there any chance I could come out and see the elk?” I asked. “Oh. And I hate to be a pain in the ass, but I also have my two dogs with me, we’re on vacation.” He barely let me get through my self invitation before he interrupted with his insistence that I come see him and let him give me a tour of the elk habitat he has been so instrumental in creating.

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A total of 71 elk from neighboring Kentucky have been introduced to Buchanan County over the course of three annual releases. I met Leon in 2013 at the second of those releases, when ten animals made the trip across the border. Those elk were a special sight, but were only viewable from a distance in a quarantine pen. The area was large, but lined with prominent fencing. So this time I was looking forward to seeing these introduced elk and even some of their offspring in a truly natural setting.

That setting, thousands of acres of habitat rich in plentiful food, clean water, ample cover and endless quiet, is part private property and part county land. There are no fences, these elk are free to wander elsewhere. But they thrive here.

As I drove across the remote southwestern corner of Virginia I wondered if any other state had as much geological diversity as the Old Dominion. From the mountains to the beaches and bay, from coal country to the Great Dismal Swamp, with big cities, small towns, farms and wilderness filling out the inbetween, I can’t think of another.

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Buchanan County is a hard, steep place. It was carved from rock removed to expose coal that fueled the economy and powered the region. Every plateau containing a school, church or a cluster of homes is there only because inhabitable mountaintops were cut off, the coal removed and the slopes below filled in. And the newly reshaped landscape, with proper planning and care, is more resilient than you could possibly imagine. In fact, much of the rich habitat where Virginia’s elk thrive is reclaimed strip mined land.

Cut into a near vertical bank alongside a steep stretch of highway I found the offices of Noah Horn Well Drilling. I let the dogs out and we all stretched our legs. When I walked in I was warmly greeted by Leon. He seemed genuinely excited to show off his beloved elk project.

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He probably wouldn’t want me to call the elk restoration project his project. The amount of effort, expertise, energy, devotion and cooperation from private landowners, county and state leaders, biologists and agencies to make it happen is incalculable. But I doubt you could find a single person involved in the project who imagines it could have been done without Leon Boyd.

The original plan calls for growing the herd to a population of about 400. Beyond that number, a hunting plan would be introduced, managed and closely monitored to sustain those numbers. This may begin to happen in as little as three or four years. In the meantime, tourism is the goal, luring people to visit here to see the magnificent animals, and of course spend the night, dine and shop. A visitors center is planned with wildlife viewing and hiking trails. Hunting would see additional revenue opportunities in the form of guiding fees, taxes and tags.

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Leon’s involvement in the elk restoration earned him an appointment to the board of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, where he is currently serving his second term. “It has certainly been a learning curve for a country boy from southwest Virginia to say the least, but I’ve gained so much respect for the VDGIF and the staff,” he said. “Through the years I’ve blamed them for a lot of stuff they had no control over.”

Leon was incredibly generous with his time that day. When we rounded a bend to see a big bull elk in velvet antlers stop and pose for photos, or crest a hill and see a small herd loitering around a pristine watering hole, to see these wild elk, some born right here in Virginia, happy and healthy and close up, was an experience I will never forget.

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And I know the next day Leon made those memories happen for someone else, or talked to a bus of curious school kids, or perhaps chatted with donors or landowners or conservation police or someone at RMEF to get something done for this project, for these special animals.

“In the beginning, I was all about the elk,” Boyd said. “But as it’s progressed, really and truly, it’s more about the people.”

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If you would like to help the Virginia elk, there is an easy way to do it, Leon says. Support the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “Support them. They support us. They put money back into habitat projects [The RMEF put $23,000 back into this project last year alone].” Membership, auctions, banquets and fundraisers all help.

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