An Assessment of the Biological and Socioeconomic Feasibility of Elk Restoration in Virginia


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Virginia Tech


The biological and socioeconomic feasibility of restoring elk (Cervus elaphus) to Virginia was assessed. Biological feasibility was determined by evaluating habitat suitability for elk while considering potential impacts of elk on existing fauna and flora in Virginia. Suitability was assessed by creating a habitat suitability index (HSI) model that measured the availability and accessibility of open foraging areas and forested cover areas, the availability of permanent water sources, and the degree of fragmentation by roads. Eight areas were identified as potential elk habitat: 1 in Southwest Virginia, 4 in the Shenandoah Mountains (Shenandoah, Highland, Big Meadows, Peaks of Otter), and 3 in the Southern Piedmont (Danville, Brookneal, Rehobeth). The highest potentials for supporting an elk herd were found in the Highland and Big Meadows study areas, medium biological feasibilities were found in the Southwest, Shenandoah, and Brookneal study areas, and low biological feasibilities were found in the Peaks of Otter, Danville, and Rehobeth study areas. A restored elk herd could negatively affect indigenous fauna and flora by changing the structure and diversity of existing forested ecosystems, but impacts can be minimized by maintaining elk populations at or below cultural carrying capacity. The introduction of diseases during restoration and possible transmission of those diseases from elk to humans, livestock, and other wildlife also are concerns, but these issues can be addressed by following a risk minimization protocol.

Socioeconomic feasibility was assessed with a statewide mail survey of Virginia residents, 4 regional stakeholder workshops, an analysis of economic costs and benefits associated with elk restoration, and an assessment of the risks of elk-human conflicts in each of the 8 study areas. Overall, most (61%) respondents agreed that elk restoration would be good for Virginia. However, the low response rate (30%) and low confidence among respondents (49%) in their knowledge about elk indicated that most residents do not have the interest and/or necessary information to form a definitive opinion. Residents believe that the greatest benefits of restoration would be the value-based and indirect ecological benefits, such as returning an extirpated species to its native range, whereas the greatest perceived costs were the economic impacts to property, crop depredation, and public safety hazards. In contrast, local stakeholder representatives identified economic returns from increased tourism due to the presence of elk and the creation of new recreational opportunities as the most anticipated benefits; important concerns were the potential for property damage by elk, the potential impacts on local ecosystems, and the costs of implementing and administering an elk restoration program and subsequent elk management. Proposed resolutions for these issues varied by region. Representatives from the Southwest and northern Shenandoah Mountain (Shenandoah and Big Meadows study site) Regions preferred not to restore elk, whereas those from the southern Shenandoah Mountain (Highland and Peaks of Otter study site) and the Southern Piedmont Regions preferred to start out small with a carefully controlled and monitored "experimental" population.

Economic benefits of elk restoration, as determined through analysis of data from other eastern states currently managing elk populations, are associated with tourism and the revenues brought to the community during elk hunting seasons, whereas economic costs are associated with crop damage, elk-vehicle collisions, and the administrative costs of managing an elk herd. Although the initial costs of transporting, releasing, and monitoring a founder population likely will exceed immediate benefits, once an elk population is established, benefits likely will exceed costs. However, an equitable distribution of costs and benefits must be devised so that the individuals who bear the costs are afforded a comparable or greater set of benefits.

Risk of landowner elk-conflicts was examined by comparing human population densities and growth rates, percent private versus public land, and agricultural trends across the 8 study areas. Highest risk for elk-human conflicts was identified in the Southern Piedmont Region and in the Shenandoah study site, risk was moderate in the Southwest, Big Meadows, and Peaks of Otter study sites, and risk in the Highland study site was low.

Overall, the Highland study site had the highest feasibility for elk restoration of all study areas examined; the Big Meadows and Southwest study sites both demonstrated moderate feasibility. Restoration in these areas is possible so long as management objectives remain flexible, plans are made in advance to address potential concerns, and the public is involved in the decision-making processes both before and after elk are released.



Human Dimensions, Habitat Suitability Model, Geographic Information Systems, Nominal Group Technique, Elk, Mail Survey, Cervus elaphus, Reintroduction