It’s hard to imagine West Virginia’s scenic beauty without its iconic wildlife, such as white-tailed deer and turkey.
Yet, many of the state’s majestic creatures have been gone so long, they live on only in the names of places – the Elk River, Wolf Island on the Elk River, Buffalo in Putnam County, Elkview in Kanawha County. Just a couple of centuries ago, people would likely have had just as much difficulty imagining the land that has become our state without its largest animals — the bison and the elk.
The last recorded bison killed was in 1825 near Valley Head in Randolph County, but the bison was long-gone from its primary range in the Ohio and Kanawha valleys long before that.
Our most reliable and detailed account of the bison extirpation in West Virginia comes from an unexpected source – George Washington himself. Washington traveled in the Ohio Valley during a 1770 trip and left us a detailed diary of what he saw and like an investigative reporter, he asked questions from everyone he met.
While camping at the mouth of Lee Creek in Wood County – I think this would have been on Dexter and Cyril Graham’s farm in Belleville – Washington ran into an old war buddy, an Indian with whom he served during the French and Indian War. As the talked about old times, they dined on the Indian’s bison meat.
Washington’s diary indicates that the bison had just recently disappeared from the Ohio Valley. He notes old bison trails, but he saw no bison on the Ohio River on a round trip from present-day Pittsburgh to Point Pleasant. Indians frequently told him of places where herds of bison used to be. He didn’t encounter any bison himself until he traveled several miles up the Kanawha River (Indians told him bison could still be found there). He and his party shot several of them for food.
The bison was the first to go, elk and wolves suffered similar fates – although they would inhabit the state for another century. Recently, however, the elk have returned thanks to wanders from Kentucky’s elk-reintroduction efforts near the West Virginia border. So have the canine predators, with what is believed to be a natural migration of coyotes to fill the void left by the extirpated wolf.
So many things are gone forever from the West Virginia outdoors. On West Virginia’s 222-mile section of the Ohio River, now protected as part of the Ohio River Islands National Wildlife Refuge, 15 major islands are gone. Among the lost islands are Upper Brothers Island — a 60-acre island below St. Marys, the 60-acre Willow Island (for which the community of Willow Island is named) and the 92-acre Belleville Island.
The remaining islands are much smaller. The 500-acre Blennerhassett Island near Parkersburg, used to be a whopping 730 acres. The 94-acre Vienna Island is a mere half its size. The 40-acre Broadback Island, six miles below St. Marys, used to be 120 acres. Also gone are an incalculable number of smaller islands. Washington’s diary, for instance, mentions a “cluster of islands” below present-day Parkersburg. Only one of those islands remains – Blennerhassett, and it is much smaller than its original size.
Big Tree Island, 15 miles upriver from present-day Williamstown, had a sycamore tree so large, that it was one of West Virginia’s first tourist attractions. Even George Washington stopped to see it and noted it in his diary. The tree was 19-feet in diameter. Not circumference – which would have been around 60 feet – but 19 feet in diameter. The island itself was 70 acres. Today, it is known as Eureka Island and a mere 17 acres of it remain above water.
Most of the islands have been submerged by the dams that make the rivers navigable for shipping. The shoals and rapids on the Ohio and Kanawha are gone. Stretches of the Ohio River George Washington could have walked across, are 20 feet deep today.
Even the nature of the land itself has changed. Today, the forests are primarily oak and hickory trees of roughly the same age – not the diverse forests and wetlands Washington described.
During early the 20th Century a great reset switch of forest succession was thrown as the American Chestnut trees died thanks to a disease imported from China and virtually the entire state’s forests were cut for timber.
While the tale of West Virginia’s extirpated animals, such as the bison, elk, wolf and passenger pigeon are well-known, those of others are not. That list once included not only bison and wolves, but some surprising animals, such as the white-tailed deer and turkey. During the 20th Century, West Virginia was revolutionary – and not just for the United States, but the world – in its creative techniques and hard work to restore those game animals to healthy populations. It is through those efforts that West Virginia was not only able to restore those game animals, but create a wealth of game-biology historical data that no other state can match.