In 2010, a transformation began in a small town called Grundy, Virginia. The town’s impetus is the mining industry because of a process known as strip mining. This has caused a momentous change in Grundy’s environment over the past few decades with alterations including deforestation and severe erosion, as well as mechanical alterations to the landscape, and excess soil drainage due to the removal of large amounts of soil from the Earth’s surface.
Left untreated after mining operations are finished, strip mining would be an environmental disaster. Thanks to organizations such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF) and individuals like Leon Boyd, coal mining does not mean the end of Grundy, Virginia’s ecosystem.
Once a mining company has finished their operation, they cannot legally pick up stake from the site and forget about the disturbance they have caused, but rather are required to put up a bond to ensure money will be available for land restoration. However, for a 2,000 acre tract of land in Buchanan county, such funds were not available. Due to an absence of other funding, the restoration of the property was mainly funded by a $300,000 grant from the RMEF. With the money granted, as well as some out of his pocket, Leon Boyd teamed up with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) as well as the RMEF, to perform the first successful elk restoration in the state of Virginia.
The reintroduction of elk in Southwest Virginia was not a whimsical venture. Instead, the area the elk would soon inhabit had to be prepared for their arrival. First, an abundance of invasive and native plant species had to be removed from the disturbed areas of the site, including autumn olive and black locust. These trees and shrubs took advantage of the barren soil, spreading quickly, growing extremely dense, creating a nightmare for a landowner planning to place a herd of grazing animals on his property. As the problem species were slowly removed, Leon and his group of volunteers planted acre upon acre of orchard grass and clover. Since elk do not eat mast like deer, their survival is dependent upon a healthy grass population. All together, the volunteers reclaimed about 600 acres of land.
Now, thanks to proper land restoration practices, the property not only supports a steadily growing elk herd, but also an abundance of other wildlife such as deer, black bear, rabbits, turkeys, and songbirds. The elk restoration project has not only brought a magnificent animal back to Virginia, but has also created a more diverse environment in and around the small town of Grundy, Virginia.
Looking back to my visit with Leon, I remember a young bull elk, standing in a field which was previously a barren, industrial wasteland. His velvet covered antlers were illuminated against the setting sun, each individual filament of hair surrounded by an orb of light, and I am amazed. When asked why he was motivated to take on such a huge project, Leon humbly replied: “I fell in love with hunting these animals when I was a little boy, and I just wanted to pass that opportunity down to younger generations.” Individuals like Leon and organizations like the RMEF have provided us with a gift. Like other qualities of life that are truly valuable, this gift is not tangible, but can be felt deeply. To obtain an optimistic outlook for the future, men and women who feel called to serve a cause much greater than them, are critical. Thankfully, Leon Boyd, his group of volunteers, and the folks at the RMEF heard their call and took action.
Story by Jacob Lam