Elk watching in the Great Smoky

North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains are visited by millions of tourists each year. Winter, spring, summer or fall, each season provides a different atmosphere in the mountaintops and deep valleys. A new kind of tourism has even developed in addition to hiking and rafting: watching elk.

The Smoky Mountains were heavily farmed in the 18th and early 20th centuries. But logging in the 20th century depleted 20 percent of the forest, and, makingthe habitat uninhabitable for the native elk population, according to Bob Miller, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park spokesman, who has been working for the park for more than 15 years.

A brochure provided by The Great Smoky Mountains Association, which is a part of The National Park Service of the U.S. Department of Interior said that “the last elk in North Carolina was believed to have been killed in the late 1700s. They were eliminated from the region by over-hunting and loss of habitat.”

Recently, the National Park has had a tourism boom due to the releasing of wild elk on the Cataloochie Mountain, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

“Two separate batches of elk were brought in. One batch was in February 2001, from the land between the Lakes, in Kentucky. The second batch came in 2002, from Elk Island National Park, in Alberta, Canada,” Miller said.

Miller said the reason for the release was to bring back what has been lost.

“There is a policy within the national park service to try to preserve the natural processes that were in place before an area was preserved by development,” said the Great Smokey Mountains National Park spokesman, who has been working for the park for more than 15 years.

He added,”We brought in 25 elk the first time and 27 elk the second time. We now have…about 60. We have breeding each year and (have) anywhere from 4-18 calves in a given year,” Miller said. “Predators around here have killed many calves. We (saw a) bear chasing after the pregnant elk when she (was) actually giving birth.”

The National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior publication also said that “in cases where native species have been eliminated from park lands, the Park Service may choose to reintroduce them. Some of the successful wildlife reintroductions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have included the river otter, Peregrine Falcon and three species of small fish.”

According to Miller, the Park Service also reintroduced the red wolf, which became a priority in the 1990s. It attempted to release these wolves in the Smokies not only to build up the habitat to what it was before but also to help the endangered species. At that time, there were only 14 red wolves in the entire world. The project lasted for more than six years but ultimately failed in reproducing enough wolves for a habitat.

“Red wolves are historically native to the Southeast. We suspended the release because we weren’t having any survival. The habitat was not over here. For red wolves it is usually on the coastal areas; this is much different,” Miller said.

As for the elk, tourists can see them from the road or by trekking on the trails throughout the mountains.

“We have had heavy bear activity this summer, so be safe when traveling in the mountains. The elk is usually found in the fields, (so) do not feed them,” said Ranger Cody, a ranger for the Smoky Mountains.

The elk is now attracting people from all over the world. During the peak seasons of summer and fall, there are different elk programs scheduled.

For University of Florida student Ned Tully, the experience was one of a kind.

“The elk came so close to me and I had chills running though my body. I could see their eyes and it was as if they were staring right at me; it was breathtaking,” he said.

Tully said he came to North Carolina to hike the mountains and to go whitewater rafting.

“We happened to hear about the elk through our river guide,” he said. “I am glad we came up here to see this; there is nothing like this in Florida,” Tully said.

The elk are found usually within an hour and a half after sunrise and an hour and a half after sunset.

The funding for the elk rereleases has not come from the government, but rather from different types of volunteer organizations.

“Bringing them in hasn’t cost the government anything. It was funded by donations from the Rocky Mountains Elk Foundation, whose mission is to restore elk wherever they can. And also Friends of the Smokies,” Miller said.