By Budd Titlow
The thrilling bugle of a bull elk crackles through the clear, crisp autumn air. Ah, life is sure grand here in — southeastern Virginia? Yes, it’s true — thanks to one of the most unusual stipulations ever placed on a federal government land purchase.
Centuries ago, American elk (Cervus canadensis) – also called wapiti by Native American tribes – were a common sight across most of Virginia. For proof, just look at any Virginia highway map and you’ll see place names like Elk Creek, Elkhorn Lake, Elk Run, Elkton, Elk Mountain, and Elk Garden dotted all over the landscape.
After the end of the American Revolution, hale and hearty colonists ventured rapidly westward, clearing the elk’s forested habitats to build homes and plant crops while killing thousands of these out-sized (500-to-1,000 pound) ungulates (hoofed mammals) to feed their families and ward off winter famine. By 1880, as much as 85% of the region’s forestland and all of its wild elk populations were gone, extirpated (wiped out) by the human “pioneering spirit”.
But thanks to the efforts of a dedicated Canadian farmer, this regal icon of eastern deciduous (oak-hickory) forests never actually completely vanished from the Virginia landscape. In 1877, James Bellwood bought a 2,000-acre farm in Chesterfield County – about 10 miles south of the City of Richmond. While he loved the temperate winters here, Bellwood soon longed for the wildlife of his native Canada. To make himself feel more at home, he imported a mated pair of wapiti from Northwest Canada and turned them loose to graze on his homestead and start a new “Americanized” herd.
Soon after the horror of Pearl Harbor pulled the United States into World War II, the U.S. Army realized the critical strategic value of the Bellwood Farm as a supply depot and approached James’ two sons about a sale. In their sixties at the time and ready to retire from farming, the Bellwood Brothers were quite anxious to sell their land for Uncle Sam’s war effort. Surprised to learn that their main concern was protecting their father’s elk herd, Army Colonel J. W. G. Stephens told the brothers, “Boys, I suggest you take this money, retire, and spend the rest of your summers in Canada and your winters down in sunny Florida, and we’ll look after your elk!”
Signed with this gentlemen’s agreement in place, the Bellwood land sale created the U.S. Government’s first official “Wild Elk Herd”. The Bellwood Elk immediately attracted a great deal of attention from the local citizenry. On warm Sunday afternoons, families would pack picnic lunches and hop the Richmond-Petersburg Trolley for the quick trip to the “Bellwood Animal Park”. In fact, as the subject of feature stories in a variety of national newspapers – including the immensely popular “Saturday Evening Post” – these majestic, cud-chewing creatures soon became national celebrities!
Over the years, the Bellwood Elk grazed and flourished on a diet of lush pasture grasses and vitamin supplements. Throughout World War II (1941 – 1945), elk roaming freely on the 640-acre Defense Supply Center Richmond (DSCR) campus became a common sight to the 5,000 civilian and military employees and 2,500 German prisoners-of-war working and living there. With no mortality from hunting or natural predation, the herd expanded rapidly, reaching a peak size of 23 animals in the late 1940’s.
While the overall story of the Bellwood Elk has been quite positive, there have been a few bumps along the road. For starters, it costs approximately $300/month to feed and provide veterinary care for the herd. Since – by law – government funds cannot be spent on the elk, DSCR employees and neighbors took it upon themselves to keep Colonel Stephens’ long-held promise to the Bellwood Family. Several times a year, they pitch in to organize special “Support Our Elk” fund-raising events and recycling campaigns.
Next, in 2002, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VGDIF) passed a ban on transporting cervids (deer and elk) into and within the Commonwealth’s boundaries. While VGDIF did this as a proactive measure to prevent the spread of Chronic Wasting Disease which is always fatal to deer and elk, it severely threatened the Bellwood herd’s long-term genetic diversity and ultimate survival. Suddenly stripped of their ability to keep the herd’s DNA fresh by “swapping out” adult elk with zoos and other captive breeding facilities, the herd’s managers were facing catastrophic inbreeding. Fortunately, the DSCR staff started using artificial insemination to eliminate the inbreeding threat and keep the herd healthy.
Today, the Bellwood Elk Herd is managed by the Defense Logistics Agency Installation Support at Richmond. With vegetation consisting of low grasses and a dense stand of oak trees, the massive ungulates now live in a 25-acre fenced preserve. The elk’s managers continually emphasize that their herd consists of still wild animals and — despite living in proximity to humans — they are not handled unless they are being treated by a veterinarian.
Now — if everything continues as planned — the bull elk’s plaintive, bugle-like wail will continue to herald the onset of crisp autumn mornings in southeastern Virginia.
Photo credit: Copyright Shutterstock
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.