By JOSEPH MARTIN
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Elk, once plentiful in Cherokee lands and the southern Appalachian Mountains, were absent since the late 1700s because of unregulated hunting. About 18 years ago, elk were reintroduced in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and their reintroduction has been a striking success story. They’re thriving.
While the species initially started out in the park’s Cataloochee Valley, wandering bulls and cows led to the herds that often roam the area around the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the Cherokee Indian Reservation. They’ve been spotted as far away as near Murphy and Spartanburg, S.C. While the species doing as well as it has is good news, it also means more encounters for humans and elk, which can have tragic consequences. It also stresses the need to manage populations and address and revise laws as needed.
National Park Biologist Joe Yarkovich said that elk don’t have the same fear of humans as deer, and that difference is because deer is still a hunted species. He said the biggest concern is when humans approach elk. Human interactions with elk have been mostly observations, but there have been a few who’ve been getting dangerously close to the animals.
“They’ll get in really close to get a picture.” Some, Yarkovich said, will feed them and even try to pet them. Many people don’t know or understand elk behavior, and they’re unpredictable. “I work with them every day, and I have no idea what they’ll do next.”
Elk are routinely seen roaming around Cherokee, and they’ve become a tourist attraction. It isn’t just the grassy, wilderness areas where they will be seen. They’ve been spotted walking through the Oconaluftee River. They been spotted grazing in fields by the old high school and elementary school. They’ve even been seen treading outside the entrances of tribal buildings, including the Ginger Lynn Welch building, which houses the Cherokee One Feather.
Feelings from local residents and possessory holders have been mixed.
Mary Herr, who resides in Yellowhill where elk will often just show up, appreciates the herds that wander. “I enjoy seeing them. You never know when they’re coming.” Sometimes, she said traffic will back up, an indicator that the elk are around. Sometimes people will pull into her driveway or over by her home, something that some could consider a nuisance. However, Herr said, “It’s not a big bother.”
Elk have also been seen grazing in people’s yards. They’ve gotten in people’s gardens, and they’re regularly seen on the roadsides and in the roads, sometimes putting themselves and motorists at peril. Gardeners particularly have found the elk, at times, to be a nuisance.
Yahnie Squirrel, who also lives in Yellowhill, has struggled to keep the animals out of her garden, a common complaint. She tried a suggestion to use caution tape. “It worked for a little while.” Then they found their way back in. Fencing is questionable too. “I was hoping to have another garden. They ate the corn.” Elk can easily jump a four-foot fence. She also has said she can’t hang clothes out to dry because the elk will get into those as well. Bull elk in the wild will often thrash their antlers in tall grasses and vegetation to display while trying to attract females.
“They just come in all different directions,” Squirrel said. While park officials and wildlife officials all warn people to keep their distance, that’s hard to do when they present themselves at people’s homes. “You’ll go out the door, and there they are standing there, looking at you.”
Some locals marvel at the beauty of these animals. Laverne Brown, who holds about five acres in Yellowhill is fond of the animals, although he did say he isn’t in Cherokee all the time and can see how some could have problems. “I don’t have any issues whatsoever. I think they’re beautiful. But I’m not there.” Brown, who said elk meat is delicious, said one day he’d like to take one.
Whether tribal members will be allowed to hunt elk isn’t something in the works at this time. In the national park, hunting elk or any animal is prohibited. People aren’t allowed to approach elk or any animal in the park, and animals that attack humans are put down. That happened after one incident where a bull elk attacked a photographer in Cataloochee. The photographer was uninjured, but the elk was destroyed.
Tribal law as far as the elk only deal with hunting, killing, trapping or taking, all of which are prohibited. The state allows for killing of wildlife, including elk, for depredation, that being a plundering or destruction, of property.
Caleb Hickman, the supervisory fish and wildlife biologist for the tribal Environmental and Natural Resources Division, said they have two staff members who work almost exclusively with requests related to wildlife and human conflicts, and those often include elk. “Elk are just one of the many species we work with, either on behalf of the community or because we must follow federal regulations for protection.”
Whether elk can be killed on tribal land if they’re destroying property depends on the situation, Hickman said. There is a process that involves a wildlife conflict report, and those are used to assess problems and mitigation strategies. “During our evaluation with the wildlife conflict report we ask is the animal just moving through or is it a resident? Is the animal after a resource, like a garden? Can we identify a particular animal that is the cause?”
Hickman said animals moving through an area respond to aversive conditioning where they animals are “hazed” into leaving. That can work unless they’ve tasted someone’s garden or are moving along an established corridor. Killing problem elk is unlikely to stop the problems. “We found that elk do not respond to death like many other species either.” He also said that removing one elk won’t keep them away because others will follow. “We found that elk do not respond to death like many other species either. When it comes to keeping elk out of gardens or even private yards, we have found good success with fencing, especially fences with electric wires. This may sound dangerous, but it is pretty safe if constructed correctly.”
Elk appear mostly docile, but they are unpredictable and can be dangerous, especially during the rut, the time the urge to breed is displayed. A full-grown bull can weigh about 700 pounds. A full-grown cow can weigh about 500 pounds. Both cows and bulls can charge, and they can charge any time they feel threatened. Bulls are highly likely to do so during the rut, and cows are particularly likely to do it after having calves. Elk are able to run quickly, and they have hooves that can do some damage combined with their weight. Hickman said elk can be euthanized if they’re presenting unacceptable threats to public safety, and dispatches may be necessary for imminent threats. “A conflict history assessment for a specific animal will be conducted by our office based upon wildlife conflict reports to justify if a lethal action is warranted. Our office will make the final recommendation to euthanize an animal, if deemed appropriate. For safety reasons and based on current code for killing elk and firearm discharge in residential areas, the Natural Resource Enforcement officers will conduct any lethal dispatch.”
Currently in the national park, visitors are required to maintain a minimum of 50 yards from any wildlife, and feeding wildlife is prohibited. On tribal land, there’s no such requirement. The only mention of elk is that hunting them is prohibited. There’s no consequence for disturbing or harassing elk on tribal land nor for getting too close. “It does not regulate how a person approaches an elk or what constitutes harassment of an elk by a non-hunter,” said Interim Attorney General Michael McConnell. The tribe would be able to change that. “The tribe has the sovereign authority to regulate how people interact with wildlife on tribal trust land. The regulation could extend to enrolled members and to non-members and could include imposing fines, etc. The devil is in the details, how the tribal law is written, applied and enforced.”
The success of the elk reintroduction means the elk most likely are here to stay. And the elk are likely to also remain a tourist draw to Cherokee, particularly as the animals continue to wander through the reservation and then make their way through the region. However, the nuisance aspect is something people will just have to learn to mitigate, and whether residents love them or are annoyed by them, they’ll have to learn to live with them. The best way to remain safe through it all is to respect the fact they are wild animals, and completely unpredictable. Keep them wild and ensure they don’t get used to people, in other words, don’t feed them, try to pet them or get too close. As Yarkovich said, “The best way to protect elk and people is to keep your distance.”