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Bellwood Elk herd enters another mating season

By Cathy Hopkins, DSCR Public Affairs
Nov. 29, 2007

RICHMOND, Va. — With fall in the air, Defense Supply Center Richmond employees are once again hearing the mating calls of the Bellwood elk bulls. The elk are in their first of two yearly mating seasons. The first season started in October and the second is in January.

The Bellwood Elk herd began from a pair of elk imported around 1900 from Canada by James Bellwood, a Canadian agriculturist and the last private owner of the property. Bellwood brought the property after the Civil War for $18.50 per acre.

The elk and Bellwood’s 2,300 acre farm was a local Richmond tourist attraction in the 1900’s.  Families would often pack a picnic lunch for a Sunday outing to see the elk and other farm animals.

The elk are still one of the unique features at DSCR. Community groups and civic organizations may tour the installation to view the elk and learn more about the center’s mission by contacting the Public Affairs Office at 804-279-3136.

“During the October season the bulls are usually more aggressive than in the January season,” said Ray Covert. “The female elk only come into season for about two or three days, but the bulls chase them around the fields until the females are ready.”

Female elk that conceive will drop calves about five or six months later. It is difficult to tell if the females are pregnant because they don’t gain much weight.

Covert is one of three Defense Logistics Agency Enterprise Support employees who have the additional duty of caring and feeding for the herd. He usually feeds the elk around 6:30 a.m. each weekday. The elk recognize Covert’s red truck and come running to the feed barn.

“They eat compressed pellets of horse feed and cracked corn,” said Covert. “We also feed them hay with molasses mixed with vitamins and minerals. They also love acorns.”

Covert said the elk are spoiled when it comes to types of hay they will eat. “They turn their noses up at any hay other than alfalfa,” he said. “The hay smells good and the elk have expensive taste.”

During the summer, they forage for grasses in the pasture, but this year because of the dry summer, their pastures were not limed, fertilized, and seeded. The elk have two continuously fed water troughs and one natural spring in the West pasture (near the swimming pool).

It costs approximately $300 a month to feed and provide veterinary care for the elk. They go through about 100-150 bails of hay each winter. No government funds are provided for their care. DSCR employees collect the money needed for food and veterinarian care through donations and an aluminum can recycling program.

Covert said the elk herd seemed a little lost after the 2006 death the 20-year-old alpha male, Junior, but this October they bounced back with one dominant male again taking charge of the herd.

“I felt a little sorry of the second male, I call him Half-wit,” said Covert. “The alpha bull chased him around and Half-wit screamed like a girl.” He said it is amazing how fast they are and no one would have a chance to get away from them in rutting season.

“When the male elk aren’t in rut, I can sometimes pet the alpha bull on the nose through the fence if I’m quick enough,” he said. “But, when rutting season is on, all bets are off. The bulls dominate everything during the season and even the ladies (female elk) wait to feed after the bulls.”

There are six feeding stalls for eight elk, so someone usually has to wait. “But, there is one young female that likes to eat at the fence,” said Covert, “So, I usually put one scoop over the fence on the ground for her.”

The oldest female of the herd is close to 20 years old. The alpha male is about five years old.

“In preparation for the rutting season, the two mature bulls were separated into different pastures,” said Ray Hall, chief of installation management. “We were leaving the fences open that connect the two pastures in the hope that some of the females would move to the other pastures.”

The Army purchased the Bellwood property in 1941 for $150 an acre. Part of the purchase agreement was a “gentleman’s handshake agreement” between the Army and the Bellwood family passing the care of the elk along to the Army with the property. Initially the elk had the run of the 640-plus acre depot moving freely among the employees.

The elk herd currently has two bulls, five cows, and one male calf. Though seemingly domesticated, the herd is still wild. The herd lives on roughly 20 acres of fenced pasture today and is still a local interest to employees and community residents.