The experimental release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in February, 2001 with the importation of 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, the park imported another 27 animals. All elk are radio collared and will be monitored during the five-year experimental phase of the project. If the animals threaten park resources or create significant conflicts with park visitors, the program may be halted. Project partners include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Parks Canada, Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, Friends of the Smokies, the U.S.G.S. Biological Resources Division, and the University of Tennessee.
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. The last elk in North Carolina was believed to have been killed in the late 1700s. In Tennessee, the last elk was killed in the mid-1800s. 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.
A primary mission of the National Park Service is to preserve native plants and animals on lands it manages. In cases where native species have been eliminated from park lands, the National Park Service may choose to reintroduce them. Successful wildlife reintroductions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have included the river otter, Peregrine Falcon, and three species of small fish.
SIZE: adult males weigh an average of 600-700 pounds. Cows average 500 pounds. Adults are 7-10 feet long from nose to tail and stand 4.5 - 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Adult males have antlers that may reach a width of five feet.
DIET: grasses, forbs, and acorns; bark, leaves, and buds from shrubs and trees.
PREDATORS: coyotes, bobcats, and black bears may kill young, sick, or injured elk. Gray wolves and mountain lions, both of which have been extirpated from the Great Smoky Mountains, are successful predators of elk elsewhere.
OFFSPRING: cows usually give birth to only one calf per year. Newborns weigh about 35 pounds. They can stand within minutes of birth and calf and cow usually rejoin the herd within a couple of weeks. Calves nurse for 1-7 months. Females are ready to breed in the second autumn of their lives.
LIFESPAN: elk can live as long as 15 years.
SENSES: elk have an acute sense of smell and excellent eyesight.
Seasons of the Elk
SPRING: most elk shed their antlers in March. The antlers, which are rich in calcium, are quickly eaten by rodents and other animals. (It is illegal to remove antlers from the national park.) After they have shed their antlers, elk immediately begin growing new ones. In late spring elk shed their winter coats and start growing sleek, copper-colored, one-layer summer coats.
SUMMER: most calves are born in early June. Male elk roll in mud wallows to keep cool and avoid insect pests. By August, elk antlers are full grown and have shed their "velvet." Calves have lost their spots by summer's end.
FALL: male elk make their legendary bugling calls to challenge other bulls and attract cows. Their calls may be heard a mile or more away. Large bulls use their antlers to intimidate and spar with other males. Most encounters are ritualistic and involve little physical contact; only occasionally do conflicts result in serious injuries to one or more combatants. During the "rut" in September and early October, dominant bulls gather and breed with harems of up to 20 cows.
WINTER: elk wear a two-layer coat during the colder months. Long guard hairs on the top repel water and a soft, wooly underfur keeps them warm. Elk may move from the high country to valleys to feed. Elk may travel beyond the boundaries of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in search of new territories. Most non-cropland adjacent to the park is designated as elk buffer zone. If elk move onto these lands but do not come into conflict with private property or the public, no action will be taken. If elk cause significant property damage or other conflict, the National Park Service will remove the animals.
The best times to view elk are usually early morning and late evening. Elk may also be active on cloudy summer days and before or after storms. Enjoy elk at a distance, using binoculars or a spotting scope for close-up views. Approaching wildlife too closely causes them to expend crucial energy unnecessarily and can result in real harm. If you approach an animal so closely that it stops feeding, changes direction of travel, or otherwise alters its behavior, you are too close!
Most of the elk are located in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern section of the park. The easiest way to reach Cataloochee is from Interstate highway I-40. Exit I-40 at North Carolina exit #20. After 0.2 mile, turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow signs 11 miles into Cataloochee valley. Allow at least 45 minutes to reach the valley once you exit I-40.
Elk are large animals-larger than the park's black bears-and can be dangerous. Female elk with calves have charged people in defense of their offspring. Males (bulls) may perceive people as challengers to their domain and charge. The best way to avoid these hazards is to keep your distance. Never touch or move elk calves. Though they may appear to be orphaned, chances are their mother is nearby. Cows frequently leave their newborn calves while they go off to feed. A calf's natural defense is to lie down and remain still. The same is true for white-tailed deer fawns.