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Earth Notes: Elk Relocation

Rose Houk

The ancestors of northern Arizona's elk were brought here from Wyoming more than a century ago. This spring, a group of those elk took another journey, to West Virginia.

Elk had vanished from the eastern United States by the late 1800s, hunted into extinction by European settlers.  Arizona lost its own native herd around the same time.

But in 1913, Arizona received a small shipment of elk from Yellowstone National Park. The animals traveled by rail to the rolling grasslands and pine-forested slopes of the state’s  high country. Their descendants now number in the tens of thousands.  

Biologists with the Arizona Game and Fish Department thought it was time to repay that century-old gift, by helping West Virginia reestablish its own herd. They decided to round up 60 elk from around the Raymond Wildlife Area east of Flagstaff and send them on a cross-country trek of 2,000 miles.

It’s no easy task to capture an elk. First, a helicopter dropped a net to tangle the animal’s legs. Then two “muggers” jumped out, blindfolded and hobbled the animal, then gave it a light sedative.

Wrapped tightly in fabric, each elk made an undignified journey dangling from the helicopter on a cable. Transferred to a pen, they then waited out a month-long quarantine before being shipped east in cattle-hauling trailers.  

There, they’ve been released into a deep green valley surrounded by tree-lined ridges. That land was once torn apart by coal mining. Now it’s reclaimed and ready to become home to West Virginia’s first elk in 150 years.  

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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