By ROBERT JUMPER
One Feather Editor
During EBCI Community Services program reports last week, Natural Resource Enforcement (NRE) reported that out of 908 total calls for the previous reporting period (typically a month), 123 calls were requesting help with elk. That is roughly 13.5 percent of all call activity for that period being elk related.
NRE said, “We may get on scene, and they are just on the side of the road, but the majority of the time they are standing in the road, or we have to deal with the public that are out there wanting to pet the animals. We do have the means to issue citations for approaching the elk at this time. So, we are going to start implementing that and hope that will (help stop that activity). It is becoming a dangerous situation at times with the elk. They have been approached so many times that they are not in fear of humans anymore. We actually have some that are getting aggressive toward officers and the public as well.”
Vice Chief Alan B. Ensley said that he had been “bombarded with phone calls” over a two-to-three-week period with concerns about the elk, from traffic situations to crop and property destruction.
NRE related that in one incident elk had destroyed a well house and mangled the electrical wiring to the water pump.
Vice Chief Ensley mentioned pending consideration for legislation he has submitted for the April session (to be read and tabled) that would increase documentation of incidents between the community and the elk. “I know the tourists love watching the elk. I like watching them myself. But when something becomes a nuisance, it’s a nuisance.”
The reintroduction effort dates back to the 1990s, when the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation approached the National Park Service (NPS) with the idea. “As many as 10 million elk roamed across North America before European settlers arrived on the continent. Exploration brought unsustainable hunting practices, new disease and competition with domestic livestock for food resources. The last (Eastern) elk in North Carolina was killed in the late 18th century. The Rocky Mountain Elk foundation approached the Great Smoky Mountains National Park about the possibility of restoring elk to the park. After environmental analysis, disease risk assessment and public comment, the park began a 5-year experimental release to see if full reintroduction could be possible.” (wfxrtv.com)
In 2001, 25 elk were released into the Cataloochee Valley area of North Carolina, then 27 more in 2002. The current count, which may be extremely approximate, puts the number of elk at around 200. Efforts to get more accurate counts are ongoing. Since elk have no real predators after them (their primary foes were grey wolves and mountain lions, both considered extinct), there isn’t much to inhibit their multiplication except potential black bear getting a few of the elk calves early on. The NPS would relocate black bears immediately when they identified predation by black bear, so that threat has been minimized. Later and more current threats are car accidents and landowners dispatching elk that is destroying property (there is a governmental process to legally do that).
The only threats to the elk population have to do with diseases like Chronic Wasting disease, which are heavily monitored by the Park Service, and contact with mankind, which brings us back to the leadership session with the reporting of nearly 14 out of every 100 NRE calls being elk related.
Elk encounters are thrilling. For the naturalist in us, the site of any animal in nature is heartening and a “feel good” moment. There is an element of nostalgia with the knowledge that a species that was wiped off the landscape for a well over 200 years has been given the opportunity to survive and thrive again.
Then, there is the practical side of the presence of elk. Hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of travelers have visited the GSMNP and the Qualla Boundary since 2001 with the express hope of seeing and photographing the elk. And as much as we like the visitors that come to our lands, we absolutely love the revenue that is generated from their visits. Since the reintroduction, the elk have had a prominent place in the Tribe’s advertising materials. Even the surrounding counties leverage the fact that an amenity that most of the southeast cannot claim is the ability to see those large, majestic beasts roaming freely except here in the western North Carolina communities.
Also, on the practical side of things, elk back in the day, might have encountered a settler or two. Tribal members, who had a spiritual kinship with the land and animals, were judicious in taking of game. History documents that tribal communities typically only took what they needed for the survival of their families and every part of a kill was consumed or made into clothing or tools. The tribe was not big on waste back in the day. As settlers, or immigrants, came onto the land, more of the land was “domesticated”, which left less habitat for animals like bison and elk. They are big animals requiring a lot of range and sustenance (which means that they eat a bunch). The settlers had a different view of those animals. For example, trading was a booming business among the settlers, and things like antlers, hides, meat, were considered currency, so it was accepted practice to do things like kill an entire herd of bison, strip them of the pelts and leave the meat to rot. For the tribe back then, these were foreign concepts as we were in the habit of giving thanks to each animal that would give its life for our sustenance.
“Early Euro-American accounts suggest how abundant and widespread eastern elk were in the Appalachians. For example, a 1754 account suggested that they ‘usually accompanied buffalos, with whom they range in droves in the upper and remote parts of North Carolina.’” (smokymountains.com)
The environment is quite different for elk in the 21st century. While the GSMNP is a large space, it is nothing like the landscape of the 17th and 18th centuries when bison and elk thrived. Artificial conditions have been introduced to enhance the chances of elk surviving. While some of the same conditions that knocked off the grey wolves and mountain lions that might have been a threat to the elk are existent, so too are these same conditions a threat to the elk.
And in that lay the dilemma. How do we coexist with the elk? Seeing an elk in a undisturbed forest can be cathartic. Seeing an elk trample and devour a carefully nurtured and cultivated corn field meant to feed your family will likely have the opposite effect. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians expends resources and leverages manpower to facilitate coexistence. Those landowners who have had issues with elk visiting their properties may request fencing from the tribal government to slow down or prevent the elk from coming onto their property. As previously mentioned, our Natural Resources Enforcement responds to what looks like an average of four elk-related calls per day each month. That ties up NRE. At times, Emergency Medical Services, Tribal Fire and Rescue, and the Cherokee Police Department are called upon to deal with traffic control and herding elk in the interest of public safety.
Public hunts and other methods of domain control have been mentioned in response to the more frequent and numerous visits of the elk. Some suggestions have been floated about the possibility of the addition of structural sanctuaries to corral the elk to the Park, limiting access to private and commercial properties and towns.
Wildlife biologist Joseph Yarkovich said in a recent article, “Twenty years of elk back on the landscape can seem like a really long time, but when you look at the big picture, it still not a big population. Smaller elk populations can be really sensitive to disease, changes in the environment, and changes in their own group dynamics.” (smokiesinformation.org)
Vice Chief Ensley and the NRE point out a growing concern from the community. How do we balance the benefits of the reintroduction of the elk with the need for a stable environment for the citizens of our community? Public safety issues concerning the elk are a reality. Life and livelihood concerns exist. Where do we draw the line between stewardship of the elk and growing concerns about the elk in our community? What do we do with the elk?