THE CAMERA WASN’T WHERE IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE. Clad in chest waders and camouflage, Kyle Hill stepped into the pond, reached into the shallow water, and lifted it from the post where it had been mounted. “They got it pretty good,” he said.
A few hundred yards away were the culprits: Rocky Mountain elk, lurking at the interface between scrubby woods and sparse grassland. Overhead, patches of clouds moved briskly across a blue November sky in southwest Virginia. The sheared ground of this former strip mine was unnaturally flat and a sharp contrast to the crinkled mountain ridges of late-autumn brown that stood layer upon layer on the horizon. The animals were slowly fading into the pine and autumn olive, leaving just one who boldly remained in the open — a large bull with antlers reaching more than 3 feet from its head.
Hill is a senior environmental science major at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He was here with biology professor Wally Smith to study the impact of the elk in the area.
These elk are members of a herd released onto the site of a former strip mine outside the town of Grundy in Buchanan County, Virginia. They’re part of a larger population now spread across Central Appalachia, where the ungulates are at the center of a pioneering new environmental and economic landscape on the literal remnants of Central Appalachia’s coal industry. It’s the kind of habitat that elk prefer — open country, with grasses, forbs, and low shrubs, and pockets of wooded areas. Elk once were native to these mountains, but the population was driven to extinction by habitat loss and overhunting.
This land has been mined by multiple companies for decades. A sign on the gated road into the property reads, “Dominion Coal Company, Mine #10.” It’s from an earlier mining operation, with underground mines burrowing deep into the earth. More recently, Paramont Coal Co. removed the mountaintop to get at the coal beneath the surface, leaving behind a flat terrain covered in grass, scrub, and pine.
That’s how mountaintop-removal mining works — blowing up the top few hundred feet of mountain to expose coal seams. After the coal is stripped, mine companies are legally required to do some restoration, which usually involves replacing the exploded soil and rock — rubble — covering it with a layer of topsoil, and seeding it with anything that will hold the ground together. Even under optimal conditions, mountaintop removal severely disrupts the ecology and environmental quality of large sites. A 2016 Duke University study found the technique has left parts of Appalachia 40 percent flatter.
Central Appalachian communities are burdened with more than a million acres of these flattened mountains, many of which have been restored on the cheap. Faced with the quandary of what to do with these problematic lands, several states have used them as reintroduction sites for elk in hopes of enriching the habitat for diverse animal species. And the hopes that follow involve some economic revival in coal country from tourist dollars spent by wildlife watchers and, eventually, hunters.
Guide Leon Boyd pulled up in a truck to join them. He’d been up the ridge getting a different camera back online. That tower-mounted camera streams to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries website.
Boyd is a vice president at an oil and gas drilling company in nearby Vansant who has become a local champion for elk restoration. He heads up the Southwestern Virginia Coalfields Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a group of volunteers that partners with Game and Inland Fisheries and other agencies to restore the 2,600-acre former strip mine site by seeding it with native plants, improving the soil, removing invasive species, and generally trying to create ideal wildlife habitat.
Hunters were happy, and so were biologists. “We started making more open areas that had a lot of autumn olive and locust, and seeding them with orchard grasses and clovers,” Boyd said.
“The number of white-tailed deer and black bear and turkey we see come in and utilize those food sources is amazing. That’s what’s got the wildlife biologists so excited.”
By breaking up the otherwise forested landscape and creating ponds and other wetlands, these open grasslands attract insects, amphibians, and migratory songbirds.
Wildlife restoration is just one of the new uses of about 1.5 million acres of Central Appalachian land affected by strip- and mountaintop-removal-mining since the 1970s. Other communities have turned their land into sites for solar energy farms, outdoor recreation hubs, industrial parks, and more. A coalition of advocacy groups recently released a list spotlighting 20 different projects at reclaimed mines in Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Elk have proven a powerful draw for Central Appalachian communities, especially since the effort engages hunters, who have historically proven to be a powerful group when it comes to funding conservation efforts.
But elk restoration also has its downsides.
Many former strip mines are reclaimed with the goal of stabilizing the ground so that it doesn’t all run off with a heavy rainfall. Remnants of the rock and soil removed to expose coal are replaced with new material that’s graded and seeded, often with nonnative species like autumn olive, which is known for holding soil. As a result, soil on reclaimed mine sites tends to be tightly compacted, which makes it difficult for vegetation to take root. A 2008 study published in the journal Ecological Applications found that reclaimed mine land was poorer in nutrients, had more severe storm runoff, and resulted in major changes to vegetation, wildlife, and soil structure.
Despite habitat improvement efforts by Leon Boyd and other volunteers, the landscape is covered with broom sage, a sign of poor soil fertility. One of the few running streams on-site flows out from one of the old deep mines.
Yet wildlife is showing up. It’s not just elk, but songbirds, dragonflies, damselflies, bullfrogs, and waterfowl.
Jennifer Franklin, a professor in the University of Tennessee’s Department of Forestry, Wildlife and Fisheries, said elk damage trees and keep the landscape more open, which “is bad if you want to grow timber, but good if you are a golden-winged warbler.”
“The main impact of elk is on the vegetation, although the development of soils and vegetation go hand in hand,” Franklin said. “Elk could improve the soil organic matter by defecating on the site, but at the same time, some studies have found that elk grazing can increase soil compaction and reduce some soil nutrients.
“They also bring in soil microorganisms and seeds because they frequently move between the forest and reclaimed mine site. This could help to reestablish soil biota and nutrient cycling on soils that were initially void of microorganisms after reclamation.”
A 2011 study by John Cox, a wildlife ecology and conservation biology professor at the University of Kentucky, suggested that elk are a keystone species that “act as habitat modifiers through grazing, trampling, wallowing, and uprooting of existing vegetation.”
Sometimes that habitat modification can benefit other species, as in the case of an elk wallow becoming a small wetland used by waterfowl, said David Kalb, a biologist with Virginia’s Game and Inland Fisheries department.
“Restoration into meadows creates opportunities for elk on the landscape, but also for these less common or rare birds that need that habitat to take advantage of it,” Kalb said. “A whole host of amphibian species that need small vernal pools can take advantage of the small ponds and wallows that elk create.”
But that activity can also disrupt local ecologies by causing erosion and transporting invasive plants.
“On the edge of surface mines, elk have created wide movement paths as they enter and exit forests during their daily activities,” Cox wrote in his study. “In these areas, erosion is readily visible, where soils have been excavated by trampling hooves, particularly on steeper slopes.”
Research has confirmed that elk disturb soil in areas where they are bedding, resulting in less soil moisture, less leaf litter, and less vegetation. By disrupting the natural ecological succession toward hardwood forest, however, they’re also creating spaces for other wildlife.
“It’s a double-edged sword with elk,” Cox said. “They’re back doing the work they’re supposed to be doing in the landscape, even though it’s a denatured sort of alien landscape in some ways. These grasslands are providing habitat for grassland bird and shrub-scrub species that are declining in the U.S. Now migratory warblers are coming in. The elk help maintain that.”
One reason Leon Boyd’s elk cameras are important is to get the elk herd before a worldwide audience. The camera’s accompanying website links to a public comment form for the state’s proposed 10-year elk management plan for the herd in Dickenson, Wise, and Buchanan counties. The plan includes guidelines for growing the elk population before opening it to hunting. Another reason for keeping the camera going: Livestreamers might eventually decide to come view the elk in person.
Wildlife viewing has become a pillar in the growing outdoor recreation industry of many Central Appalachian communities in the aftermath of coal’s dominance.
Places gifted with beautiful scenery see outdoor recreation as a path toward rebuilding their economies. The welcome signs in Buchanan County, for instance, bill it as “Nature’s Wonderland.”
Elk restoration adds another attraction to the marketing of the region as an outdoor destination.
“The elk viewing tours are one of about six things that we really kind of publicize as our adventure offerings, including zip line, mountain bike and e-bike rentals, whitewater rafting trips, guided adventure hikes, and rock climbing,” said Austin Bradley, superintendent at Breaks Interstate Park, which is located on the Kentucky–Virginia state line.
Breaks started offering elk-viewing tours in 2015, three years after the Virginia elk population was introduced. In 2018, about 400 people went on elk tours, Bradley said, including free trips for school groups, economic development professionals, and elected officials.
“For a really long time, this park and this entire region were so heavily focused on mining,” Bradley said. “Even here at the park, the coal miners came in and ate at our restaurant, they camped at our campground, and coal companies had large employee appreciation events in the summer and Christmas parties in the winter. All that dried up. We were really getting in some pretty dire straits.
“But that outdoor recreation and adventure tourism focus to reach a broader audience has definitely paid off. We’ll set a revenue record this year. The elk help us reach a broader audience.”
Across the state line in Kentucky, elk have had an even more transformative effect on mountain economies.
The Bluegrass State began studying elk reintroduction in the 1990s, released its first herds in 1997, and opened hunting in 2001. Kentucky has seen its elk population in the 16-county region grow from 1,541 introduced animals to more than 10,000. About 10 percent of the area is reclaimed and active surface mines.
A 2013 study from the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources estimated that hunters spend $1.9 million annually in the elk region. Licenses and permits bring another $800,000. These figures don’t factor in nonconsumptive users, such as wildlife watchers.
“If you go to places like Louisville or Paducah or Lexington, $1.9 million is nice, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to other revenue sources,” said Steven Dobey, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s conservation program manager for the eastern U.S. “But when you go to eastern Kentucky and that 16-county elk zone, and spread that over gas stations, hotels, hunting stores, that does have a significant economic impact.”
A study on five Tennessee counties where elk populations have been restored counted about $10.25 million in total economic value.
As Hill and Smith set up the last of their wildlife cameras, the weather had started to turn. The temperature had dropped, and clouds coalesced overhead and started to spit cold rain.
Boyd recounted hunting and wildlife-watching stories.
He clearly believes in the restorative power of the elk. He described a group of birders he’d brought to the site who expected the former strip mine to look like a moonscape. At one point in time it did. But by the end of the day, he said, the most skeptical birders were the most enthusiastic, gushing about the 27 species they’d seen that day.
“You’ve just got to get out and see the site,” Boyd said. “Then you’ll really understand it.”