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Outdoors Elk reintroduction proving to be successful in Cataloochee Valley

One of the natural wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the majestic elk. Saved from virtual extinction in the Appalachians by its reintroduction into the park, more than 140 elk survive and thrive. The Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust is sponsoring elk excursions to Cataloochee Valley this month as part of its Eco Tour Outreach Program.Elk once roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains and elsewhere in the eastern United States. They were eliminated from the region by over-hunting and loss of habitat. By 1900, the population of elk in North America dropped to the point that hunting groups and other conservation organizations became concerned the species was headed for extinction.

In early 2001, the first elk set foot into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since the turn of the 19th century. This was the beginning of an experiment to see if an elk herd could sustain itself in the area after about a 200- year absence. Ten years later the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the surrounding land is home to more than 140 elk, proving that the elk can survive and thrive in this part of the Appalachians.

It’s been a long journey for the elk to return to the Smokies, and its partners, have learned a lot about the North Carolina elk herd since their initial releases in 2001 and 2002 in the Cataloochee Valley. In the first 8 years of the experimental phase, many aspects of their release into the park were studied including home ranges, dietary composition, survival and reproductive rates, what impacts they were having on park resources, and much more.

One thing park officials have learned about the Smoky Mountain elk herd is that there is still a lot to learn. The elk project is no longer framed as an experiment, but is transitioning into what is being considered a reintroduction. As the dynamics of the Smoky Mountain elk herd change, the ongoing research and management will adapt and change with it to give Park researchers information about how the elk herd is faring in its return home.

In the last ten years, the elk management team has learned that up to this point, the majority of elk have stayed close to where they were released and those that were born here tend to stay close to where they were born. Several animals have left the immediate area and traveled through the region, but most NC elk have a fairly small home range. They are reproducing well and tend to have large, healthy calves that grow into adults with good body conditions and large antlers, all of which can be seen as an indication that they have high-quality habitat to feed and live in.

The elk that were originally released into the park had never dealt with black bears as predators and as a result, many of the calves born here were killed by black bears in the first few years. Over time, however, the elk seem to have learned to deal with bears and to hide and defend their newborns as survival rates for calves has increased over the years.

If you want to see an elk

Since the elk were released into Cataloochee, visitation there doubled and has remained almost double ever since. Throughout the summer, and especially in the fall, throngs of visitors flock to Cataloochee Valley and Oconaluftee to picnic and enjoy the Park, and keep their cameras ready when the elk come out of the woods and into the fields where they are most commonly seen.

If you visit to the Smoky Mountains to view elk this fall, remember a few things to help make your visit more enjoyable and safe.

• Bring binoculars and zoom lenses. This allows for great viewing and photos from a safe distance.

• Be very mindful of your food scraps and please clean up after yourself. This helps eliminate the chances of an elk becoming conditioned to human food, which usually leads to the demise of the animal.

• Stay in or near your vehicle when the elk are out, and please pull off to the side of the road to allow traffic to continue around you.

• Be patient! This allows everyone to have a better experience of Cataloochee, at a Cataloochee pace.

Planned elk excursion

This autumn, Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust will sponsor an Elk Excursion to Cataloochee Valley, on two different dates as part of their Eco Tour Outreach Program. On Thursday, Sept. 22, and again on Wednesday, Sept. 28, eco tour participants will hear special presentations by a GSMNP elk specialist, the opportunity to view the elk in their habitat and a picnic dinner in the valley. The Sept. 22 trip will include a seated presentation while the Sept. 28 tour will include a walking tour.

Not only does the early fall offer spectacular views in the valley but it is also a great time to visit and experience the rut. The “rut” is the season when the male elk, or bull, compete for dominance and the right to mate with the female elk, or cow. An important part of the process is the bull warning call to other males, known as the “bugle.” The call, which has been described by many as eerie or haunting, provides an audible cue that fall has arrived at Cataloochee Valley.

Don’t miss this unique opportunity to learn more about the elk reintroduction program during this beautiful time of year. The cost for the Elk Excursion is $10 for HCLT members and $35 for new friends which include an HCLT membership. A picnic dinner will be provided. Space is limited. To learn more and to reserve your spot contact Highlands-Cashiers Land Trust at (828) 526.1111 or This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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