The last time a wild elk roamed West Virginia was in 1875. Today, thanks to conservation efforts in the Mountain State, a herd of 24 now call home thousands of acres of newly acquired, protected land.

The elk were released just a few days ago on December 19 on the newly created Tomblin Wildlife Management Area in the southwestern part of the state marking the official kickoff of the West Virginia Elk Reintroduction plan. An even split of bulls and cows were captured in western Kentucky’s Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in November and were cleared after being tested for diseases. In total, the state Division of Natural Resources (DNR) will manage more than 40,000 acres of elk habitat.

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin touted the reintroduction as an economic stimulator as well as a win for conservationists who have longed to see the elk’s range extend along the Eastern seaboard. "There's thousands of acres here that's been restored," Tomblin told the Associated Press. "To have the elk population here for people to come and enjoy, I think it's putting the land to good use.”

The plan was spearheaded by the state’s DNR and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF). Plans are in the works to introduce additional elk in the future, which will open the possibility for hunting.

More than 10 million elk once roamed the United States, but by 1880 the eastern elk, one of six subspecies, was declared extinct. Reintroduction efforts first started in Pennsylvania in 1913 when state officials transported Rocky Mountain elk from Yellowstone National Park. The eastern population started to grow in earnest in the 1990s when the RMEF began working with state and federal officials to acquire and protect elk habitat.

The RMEF has helped protect more than 87,000 acres of elk habitat to establish herds across Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Elk populations in the east now hover around 17,000, much of them residing in Kentucky, which is home to more than half.

The RMEF is dedicated to not only a healthy population of elk in the country, but to continuing the tradition of hunting. Sportsmen contribute in high numbers to the foundation, and thus are a large reason the elk reintroduction along the East Coast has been a success. In West Virginia, too, funds from sportsmen in the form of hunting, fishing and trapping licenses, as well as excise taxes paid on archery equipment and firearms, was pivotal in acquiring the land. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, sportsmen contribute nearly $3 billion to conservation each year.

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