Wednesday, October 26, 2016


A fire burned on jagged mountain crests above the landscape of a reclaimed strip mine, from within the crimson and apricot leaves of expiring hardwoods. The setting sun painted a halo of orange on the pointed peaks, topped by the glowing pale blue sky of an early-to-rise hunter’s moon, casting silhouettes of mountains and coal fields spanning west into Kentucky, north into West Virginia, and south and east into the more populous regions of southwest Virginia’s Mountain Empire.

5x5 bull elk taking stock of his field in Buchanan County, Virginia. Photo by Matt Reilly.
    After glassing from an opposing mountain vantage point and driving hurriedly over gravel and tall grass, John Taylor of Vansant, Virginia, a volunteer with the Southwest Virginia Coalfields Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), brought his lifted, dark emerald Excursion to a grumbling halt, eyes fixed on a few dozen hide-colored bobs populating a rolling fescue field.

    I’d been there before, and recognized the terrain bathed in clear moonlight and the palpable feeling of natural history in the making. Only this time, the mood was much wilder. My previous visit was two and a half years ago. At 2:00 in the morning, I stood in the company of Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) staff and RMEF volunteers—their eyes glued to an enclosure, on which headlights born of Kentucky would soon appear hauling a livestock trailer containing 45 of the hide-colored bobs.

    That young April morning of 2014 marked the last installment of a three-year plan to restore elk to the state of Virginia. A subspecies of elk, the eastern elk, is native to western Virginia, but was extirpated by early human inhabitants—the last individual killed in Clarke County in 1855. Since then, in recent history, there have been a few failed attempts at reestablishing a viable herd in the Old Dominion, but each met a calculable end. However, the 72 Rocky Mountain strain individuals trucked in from Kentucky to the reclaimed strip mine site in Buchanan County, and protected within the designated “restoration zone” of Buchanan, Dickinson, and Wise Counties, has shown tremendous success, and now boasts a herd of 160-165 individuals.

    Camera cradled, I climbed from the Expedition, followed by Taylor, and stalked quietly behind a screen of brush to subtract twenty yards from the distance separating us from the elk. Light was insufficient for my camera, but I already had pictures. I found more light through the glass of my binoculars.

    The hide-colored bobs grew hide-colored ribs and shoulders; cinnamon bellies and legs; and shaggy, chocolate manes. Some grew antlers branching once, twice, three and four times from each main beam. All grew wild eyes.

    Then an old, stately bull emerged from a treeline just over a fescue knob.

    “I’ve never seen him before,” Taylor breathed. “He’s not one of ours.”

    His eyes fell on me, then on the dozens of cows grazing in the field. The rut is winding down, but the need to breed is still in their psyche, and he likewise began rounding up a few stray females. He was shaggy, totally chocolate—almost black—with a 6x6 rack, beams and tines dark, save for ivory tips.

    A few satellite bulls milled about the field, paying more attention to the dominant bull than to the females in the herd. One younger bull—a lanky 4x4—was left behind, once the chocolate bull had rounded up his harem. The dominant bull turned to face him, and slowly began walking towards the bull, occasionally throwing his rack back and extending his neck, as if to bugle, but without sound.

    The gap between bulls was closed to a few feet. The 4x4 looked puzzled, and the chocolate bull passed him by without incident. As if told to keep up, the 4x4 then trotted towards the treeline where the group of cows were exiting the field. The chocolate bull followed suit, and in the fading light, made a few attempts to mount one of the trailing cows.

    The woods just inside the opposing treeline were torn apart as a massive 7x7 bull charged into the field, pounding the ground with hooves driven by 700 pounds of muscle, gleaming rack thrown back in aggressive trot. He charged into the center of his harem, reclaiming ownership, and booting the chocolate bull from the field and into sexual and social exile in the hollow below.

    Turning to take a visual survey of his territory, his cows swirled around him as he tossed his headgear back and, with shaggy mane outstretched, hurtled a piercing, cocked-jawed, guttural screech into the night that rattled my heart on its arteries like a yellowing leaf blasted by a November wind. There was crashing and hoof stamping where there hadn’t been for almost two centuries, and a home-again drama of the autumn woods disappeared as quickly as it unfolded into the moonlight-cloaked thicket.

*Originally published in the Rural Virignian

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