Cherokee Elk Study shows importance to Appalachian community and economy

by Jul 16, 2020COMMUNITY sgadugi



The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) and survey research firm Responsive Management recently released the results of an economic analysis showing that the presence of elk is important to the southern Appalachian community and its economy. The scientific study assessed economic impacts and measured public opinion toward elk among EBCI tribal members and visitors to the Cherokee area.

The public often contacts the EBCI biological staff about elk damage and other elk related complaints, while the community does not always share more positive feedback. After years of addressing community concerns about elk and a three-year survey of local gardener perceptions about elk, the EBCI Office of Fisheries and Wildlife wanted a more comprehensive social and economic study. To better manage elk as a resource, the Tribe is investing in elk restoration and protection, but a better understanding of the community’s perspective and the value of elk to the community is necessary for determining the scope and limits of this investment.

Herds of elk frequent the Boundary on a regular basis. (SCOTT MCKIE B.P./One Feather photo)

From baseline data, experiences and accumulated questions, the EBCI Office of Fisheries and Wildlife commissioned Responsive Management to perform the survey research. The study entailed a scientific, probability-based telephone survey of EBCI members and an online survey of visitors to the area. The surveys explored a range of issues related to attitudes toward elk on the Qualla Boundary. Research also included an economic analysis of spending on elk viewing, which used economic modeling to calculate direct effects, indirect effects, and induced effects of that spending.

Of the $29 million and 400 jobs in the Cherokee area that are generated by elk viewing, the economic analysis calculated that about a quarter of these impacts go directly to the Qualla Boundary itself: approximately $7 million in impacts and approximately 100 jobs result from elk viewing within the Qualla Boundary.

In addition to the beneficial economic impacts, the presence of elk is appreciated by EBCI members: the overwhelming majority of members (80 percent) like having elk around, and 42 percent of members have engaged (or tried to engage) in wildlife viewing of elk.

The majority of EBCI tribal members think the size of the elk population is about right (61 percent); otherwise, they are divided, with 19 percent saying it is too high and 13 percent saying it is too low. (The remainder responded that they did not know).

An overwhelming majority of EBCI tribal members (80 percent) like having elk around, although some of those members like them but worry about the problems that elk cause (24 percent). A small percentage of members (7 percent) regard elk as a nuisance.  The remainder have no particular feeling about elk.

Problems with visitor viewing was twice that of problems with the elk themselves: in the past 12 months, 13 percent of members had problems with elk, while 26 percent had problems with people viewing elk. Examples of problems experienced with elk most commonly included damage to gardens and landscaping, while nearly all problems with visitors and tourists viewing elk involved transportation issues, such as traffic jams and illegal or obstructive parking.

A sizeable percentage of visitors (43 percent) had been to Harrah’s Cherokee Casino within the past 12 months, with about a third of those visitors saying that having elk in the area influenced their decision to come to Harrah’s Casino.

The full report of study results can be access here:

Elk, such as this one photographed at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, are thriving in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounding areas. (SCOTT MCKIE B.P./One Feather photo)

Following the successful reintroduction of elk into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the early 2000s, surrounding communities have benefited from the presence of the species by marketing elk-related recreational attractions to residents and visitors. The most-visited national park in the United States, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, has been home to a growing elk herd since 2001, when elk were first released in Cataloochee Valley. Since then, surrounding towns have prominently advertised elk-related activities unique to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park region.

The prominence of elk in marketing and advertising for tourism-related activities and attractions in and around Cherokee follows the examples of other areas of the country in which reintroduced elk have contributed to local economies thanks to increased tourism and participation in recreational activities involving elk.

Due to the presence of elk and its growing impact on the area, the EBCI wanted to assess the attitudes of its members toward elk presence, quantify any nuisance or conflict issues, and analyze the economic benefits of having the elk on the Qualla Boundary. The Tribe also wanted to weigh the benefits of elk compared to the costs of having elk that, for example, damage gardens and other property or cause traffic issues with tourists slowing to view elk.

As mentioned previously, in the past 12 months, 13 percent of members had problems with elk and 26 percent had problems with tourists viewing elk; in total, those who experienced problems with elk directly or problems with tourists viewing elk is about a third (33 percent) of tribal members. Among those who experienced problems, a majority (78 percent) still like having elk around: after discussing the problems they had experienced, 44 percent said they like having elk on the Qualla Boundary and 34 percent like having elk on the Qualla Boundary but worry about the problems they can cause. Only 9 percent of those who have experienced problems said they regard elk as a nuisance.

The results of this study will help the EBCI community make critical management and restoration decisions about elk. For instance, the benefits seem to outweigh any costs, whether economic or social. Most costs of having elk were related to traffic issues, so the Tribe could invest in mitigation strategies for safe and productive viewing opportunities. If it comes time to consider a draw hunt, many factors in this study will aid decisions, such as the worth of elk on the hoof and public interests. Based on these results, the Tribe may choose certain investments, like stronger laws to protect elk as a resource. The tribe may consider investing in conservation such as research and land management. Ecotourism may thrive with better strategies and greater opportunities for viewing elk. By and far, the visitors and citizens enjoy elk, and the tribe’s economy and community benefit greatly from their presence on the landscape.

Responsive Management is an internationally recognized survey research firm specializing in attitudes toward natural resource and outdoor recreation issues. Its mission is to help natural resource and outdoor recreation agencies, businesses, and organizations better understand and work with their constituents, customers, and the public (

If you have any questions, contact EBCI Fisheries and Wildlife Management 359-6110 or email

To learn how to safely view elk in Cherokee:

You can learn more about EBCI Fisheries and Wildlife and elk management here:

– EBCI Natural Resources release