When the crisp autumn air permeates the woods of Virginia, the elk population at Defense Supply Center Richmond finds itself in the mood for love. Bugle calls of the wooing bull elk pierce the quiet, signaling a mating ritual that may include wallowing in mud and headstrong males battling for the affections of the elk cows in the herd.
Elk were once part of Virginia’s native wildlife, but overhunting and the establishment of farms in prime grazing land led to their rapid decline. The last native elk was killed in 1855, according to a Virginia Polytechnic University master’s thesis from 1943.
James Bellwood was the last private owner of the land now home to DSCR. In 1900, he imported a pair of elk from Yosemite National Park and Washington State to start a herd of his own.
During Bellwood’s ownership, the herd grew to more than 20 animals, and their presence brought visitors by the hundreds to view them in their natural surroundings. After Bellwood’s death, his family sold the land to the Army under the condition that the herd would be maintained and cared for. A handshake sealed the deal, and the Army built its supply depot on more than 600 acres purchased from the family in 1941.
The elk grazed the land along Kingsland Creek on the southern edge of the installation and in the winter were fed forage purchased for military horses. When horses were phased out of service, DLA officials were left with the challenge to continue caring for the elk. So employees, having grown fond of the animals, donated money through an annual fund drive held by the Elk Relief Association. The Elk’s Bawl, as it was called, served as a critical means of support until it was discontinued in 1972 because of Army regulations prohibiting solicitation.
In 1975, the Officers’ Wives Club took up the fundraising mantle and engaged in bakeoffs and other efforts to raise money. Soon after, the installation established a wildlife management council and appointed a facilities engineer to serve as conservation officer. Yet another source of funding was established — this time, an Elk Feed Fund Council collected money from recycling, donations from private and civic groups and the occasional sale of one of the herd.
In 2013, the Office of General Counsel at DLA determined the installation could designate funds to continue caring for the Bellwood elk and funding, management and care now fall under the purview of DLA Installation Operations Richmond. Jimmy Parrish, chief of the Environmental Management Division, DLA Installation Operations Richmond, said caring for the herd is a joint effort between the Environmental Management Division and the Installation Management Division.
“The environmental folks handle all of the permitting requirements and public relations, and the installation folks handle the physical care and feeding,” Parrish said. “This teaming has worked very well throughout the years.”
From an environmental perspective, Parrish said, the team considers it “an honor” to have the elk at DSCR. “We are the only [Department of Defense] facility to have a regulatory permit to exhibit the elk. We take this responsibility very seriously — not only for the care and well-being of the elk but also because of their historical significance and meaning to the installation and its employees.”
Though other military installations across the country boast populations of wild animals that can be hunted, the Bellwood elk population is unique, as it is off-limits to hunters. The Bellwood elk — 30 in all — live on 25 acres of fenced grassland bordered by a stand of oak trees. Though they are wild animals, the herd does greet its handlers at mealtimes, “screaming” their salutations and jostling for a prime spot at the feed bin.
Donald Matre, motor vehicle operator at DLA Installation Operations Richmond, said the people who care for the elk on a daily basis are all animal lovers.
“We take the responsibility of assisting with the care of the elk very seriously and consider it a privilege to be entrusted to do so,” Matre said. “We feed them a dietary supplement of deer feed, corn and alfalfa daily, monitor them for any serious illness or injury and assist the veterinarians when they’re needed.”
Matre added that as an ailing elk recovers, “it’s very satisfying … to watch [its recovery] and see it thrive and return to good health.”
The elk are only handled during veterinary exams; the animals are first tranquilized to minimize stress and the chance of harm to either elk or human. Parrish said food and veterinary bills total about $15,000 annually.
As residents of the installation, the histories of the elk are recorded for posterity. Births, deaths and the occasional head-in-a-bucket incident all become part of DSCR installation history. One particularly mischievous character, Junior, required the assistance of the veterinarian to pry off a red feed bucket that he’d become a little too fond of. In seasons past, Bellwood bulls have also tangled their antlers in barbed wire and gone toe-to-toe with a parked tractor. The tractor was the clear loser, suffering a punctured radiator and doors.
“Watching them interact and noticing the distinct personality traits that some of them exhibit is very interesting. They are all extremely curious. We are also responsible for the unpleasant task, which none of us look forward to, of having to bury them when one dies,” Matre said.
When the elk go to that great pasture in the sky, Parrish said, as government property they are “respectfully” interred at various locations around the installation. “We like to keep them close to home.”
Being the wild creatures they are, elk are prone to fence jumping, poaching or other mishaps, but Parrish said the security force on the installation does “an outstanding job” protecting the herd.
“We also routinely ensure that the fences are well maintained and kept up to date,” he said. The installation keeps the herd at a size the installation can sustain by transporting surplus members to other wildlife preserves or parks around the state.
The installation is in the process of transferring two elk in Richmond to be placed on exhibit at Marymount Park in Richmond, one of four licensed elk exhibitors in Virginia.
In their 100-plus-year residence here, the Bellwood elk have garnered worldwide attention. Their first foray into the national spotlight came after The Saturday Evening Post ran a story titled “The Elk That Joined the Army.” From there, news and interest in the herd only grew.
Locally, residents and installation employees have regarded the elk as family. Installation and local papers have also published naming contests for calves over the years.
The installation recently teamed up with Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help develop a joint Elk Management Plan. The state began reintroducing elk into the wild in 2012, and today more than 200 elk range over land in the southwest part of the state. Those elk came from a herd in Kentucky; there are no plans to integrate the Bellwood herd into this one, though.
“Both parties felt that, though they are still wild, our elks are far too tame to be entered into another wild population,” Parrish explained.
Visitors continue to come and see the elk; anywhere from 10 to 20 people each week stop by.
“We built the visitor observation stand just off Jefferson Davis Highway for the sole purpose of attracting visitors to our elk, rather than them having to enter the installation,” Parrish said.
“Many keep track of the elk throughout the year and can easily locate and identify the new calves,” he said. “This stand has been very well used. In addition, our employees still find their elk to be well worth the viewing. Some of us find the presence of the elk herd to be relaxing and a visible link to our past.”
- Elk are a different species from reindeer and are significantly larger.
- Male elk are called bulls; females are called cows.
- Cows gestate for nearly 250 days, giving birth in mid-May through July.
- Calves are born with spots and develop their brown coats at around 6 months.
- Only bulls grow antlers. The first set comes in around 1 year of age,
and as they grow they are coated with soft tissue called velvet. The bulls scrape off
the velvet when the antlers start growing.
- Bulls with six points on their antlers are known as Royal elk; Imperial elk have seven points
and Monarchs have eight points.
- Bull elk can weigh as much as 1,100 pounds and are considered fully mature at age 7.
They stand about 6 feet tall at the shoulder.
- Cows are mature at age 3 and weigh roughly half as much, at around 550 pounds.
They are also shorter — roughly 4 feet tall at the shoulder.