Elk in the Smokies: What to Know

elk2When you think of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you think of black bears. Or maybe salamanders. But did you know that rangers are trying to reintroduce elk into the park?

Elk used to be native to the area, and roamed the Great Smokies. But in the mid-1800s, they were eliminated from the area, due to over-hunting and loss of habitat.

An experimental program started in the Smokies in 2001, with 25 elk being reintroduced . In 2002, the park imported 27 more animals. You can check out progress reports on the elk population of the Great Smokies here. Just scroll down to the progress reports at the bottom.

The last progress report is from July 2012. It states that during the past year, 14 calves were born, 13 of which were still alive. Eight elk had been killed in the past year: 3 from vehicle accidents, 2 from disease, and 3 that were illegally killed (!).

New book about Smoky Mountain elk

elkBookThe newest offering of the Great Smoky Mountains Association is the book “Smoky Mountain Elk: Return of the Native” by Rose Houk.

According to The Knoxville Daily Sun:

In 72 pages, Houk’s book details the biology that makes elk, well, elk; the decision-makers who brought them home to the Smokies; and the project’s success that today has resulted in a herd some 140 animals strong and has been declared a permanent reintroduction. “An Elk Year” is a particularly intriguing chapter that takes readers from the October rut (mating season) to June, when “a calf can be born almost every day somewhere in the Great Smokies.”

The book also includes plenty of beautiful photographs.

The book is available for $9.95 from www.SmokiesInformation.org.

Go on an elk hike!

On July 9 and July 23, you can go on a guided hike to learn more about elk for free!

The hike starts at the Cataloochee Valley, Rough Fork trailhead at 6 p.m. and lasts until 7:30 p.m. A ranger will take you to the elk acclimation pen and tell you how, when, and why the elk were returned to the Smokies. The hike is less than one mile and is rated moderate in difficulty.

For more information, visit the Great Smoky Mountains event website.

Fun facts (and safety tips!) about the Great Smoky Mountain elk

  • Elk are larger than the park’s black bears! Females weigh up to 500 pounds, and males up to 700! They stand as tall as a pickup truck! Adults are 7-10 feet long from nose to tail.
  • Coyotes, bobcats, and black bears may kill injured or young elk in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but adult elk are generally safe from predators. They have excellent eyesight and sense of smell, which help protect them.
  • Elk can be dangerous! Female elk have been known to charge people in defense of their offspring. Males may perceive people as challengers to their domain and charge. That’s why…
  • It is illegal to willfully approach (within 150 feet) elk in the park. Violation of this federal regulation can result in fines and arrest. Do not enter fields to view elk — instead, remain by the roadside and use binoculars or telephoto lens.
  • It’s also illegal to feed elk! Don’t do it! It can really make the elk dangerous and lead to its demise.
  • Male elk bugle to attract females or to challenge other bulls. You can hear this unique noise in the park in fall, from as far as a mile away!
  • Elk are vegetarians! They eat grasses, forbs, acorns, bark, leaves, and buds.
  • Newborn elk usually weigh about 35 pounds and can stand within minutes of birth. They are ready to breed in the second autumn of their lives. Elk are usually born in early June. They are born with spots, but lose them by summer’s end. They will live up to 15 years. Never, ever touch a baby elk (calf). Though they may appear to be abandoned, chances are that the mother is nearby.
  • Elk shed their antlers in early spring — usually March. After they have shed them, they immediately begin to grow new ones. It is also illegal to remove elk antlers from the park.


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