Echoes in the Mountains: Elk Return to the Smokies

Echoes in the Mountains: Elk Return to the Smokies

Phoebe Carnes

Images by Phoebe Carnes

I was around seven or eight when my dad first took me to Cataloochee Valley. My memory of that day is hazy, but I remember seeing a bull elk bugle for the first time and being awestruck. The sound shook me to my core and conjured up instinctual feelings of admiration and wonder.

Growing up in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains, I have always been surrounded by wildlife. I remember catching salamanders and snakes in the hollow below my house, running after grasshoppers and butterflies at my nana’s, and learning how to identify the tracks of the deer, coyote, and bear that would traverse our forest. On family camping trips to Cades Cove, we would count the number of animals we saw along the loop every evening. Every day was an adventure, and this was likely what instilled my fascination with wildlife.

Bull 256 bugles, showing off his radio collar.
Bull 256 bugles, showing off his radio collar.

Years passed, but my love for animals didn’t waver. I soon became interested in wildlife photography. But somehow, it becomes harder to find bear and deer when you’re purposefully looking for them. That’s when I had a sudden realization—Wasn’t there a herd of elk 15 minutes from me in Oconaluftee? I started taking regular trips to the valley, where I could find elk every evening grazing out in the fields just as the sun dipped below the mountains.

I don’t think I expected myself to get so attached to elk or to grow so familiar with them that I could tell bulls apart by the way they walked or differentiate certain females from one another. But it’s easy to become infatuated when you’re spending so much time with a group of animals. For me, it was the realization that each elk has its own quirks and unique disposition. Each one is an individual.

But not so long ago, there weren’t any elk to be found in the Smokies at all.

A cow feeding on fall foliage.
A cow feeding on fall foliage.

Before Europeans arrived in North America, wood bison ruled the forests of the Smokies, and gray wolves were the dominant predator. Eastern elk, a regional subspecies of elk that were perfectly adapted to living in the wooded Appalachian Mountains, could be found in abundance.

In the 18th century—as Europeans began to hunt, farm, and increasingly displace Indigenous peoples from their lands in present-day Western North Carolina and East Tennessee—elk began to disappear. Elk would often hang around settlements, especially during cold winters. This made them easy targets, and they were quickly slaughtered at a devastating rate. The last elk in North Carolina was killed in the late 1700s, stripping the Smokies of one of its most iconic and incredible species. In 1877, the last remaining eastern elk was shot in Pennsylvania, and the subspecies was declared extinct in 1880.

A young calf fitted with a radio collar.
A young calf fitted with a radio collar.

Over two centuries later, the National Park Service began to discuss the possibility of reintroducing elk into the Great Smoky Mountains. The closest relative of the eastern elk, the Manitoban elk, was the best candidate, but there was some apprehension about the project. How could anyone be sure that the animals would thrive in the Smokies, given their 300-year absence? How would other species react to the reintroduction? What would the impacts be of bringing back such a massive animal to a delicate ecosystem? With these questions in mind, the park was hopeful but also realistic. There was no guarantee that this experiment would be a success.

In 2001, after years of planning, the park brought in 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee–Kentucky border and released them into Cataloochee Valley, an area that seemed to be the most fit for a herd of elk. A year after, in 2002, an additional 27 animals were brought from Elk Island National Refuge in Alberta, Canada. The elk were left to fend for themselves under the watchful eye of park biologists, and no one could be sure of what would happen next.

For the first few years, the herd seemed to be doing well, though calf mortality was astonishingly high. These cows had never had any predators before their relocation, and so they weren’t able to properly defend their young from hungry bears. Elk, however, are adaptable animals, and they quickly found effective hiding spots for their young. Slowly but surely, the population began to grow, and by 2011, it was estimated that there were 140 to150 elk roaming in and around Cataloochee Valley. The reintroduction project was becoming a success!

It didn’t take long for individuals to wander into other areas of the park, eventually making their way to Oconaluftee, where they began to form another herd separate from those in Cataloochee Valley. A few stragglers even entered the Tennessee side of the park, though most elk are thought to be on the North Carolina side.

A young bull in Cataloochee Valley with autumn leaves as a backdrop.
A young bull in Cataloochee Valley with autumn leaves as a backdrop.

Monitoring of the Smokies elk herd remains of utmost importance. Many elk are identified using ear tags, and others wear large collars around their necks, which park biologists track using radiotelemetry. This is especially important if the biologists are looking for a particular cow or bull (such as a pregnant mother). Biologists also study and ‘check-up’ on tagged individuals to measure population growth and health.

Today, the park estimates that there are between 150 and 200 elk in the entire park, with roughly 70 being found in and around Oconaluftee. These elk of Oconaluftee have made quite the impression on me, and I have come to appreciate and respect them because of it. It is my hope that, with this series, you will not only understand these incredible cervids on a more personal level but also see why the conservation and protection of this herd is vital.

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Phoebe Carnes is a writer and wildlife photographer who recently served as a Teen Leaders in Conservation intern in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and shadowed wildlife intern Laurel Glover in fall 2021. She is a senior at Swain County High School in Bryson City, North Carolina, with plans to pursue an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. This is the first part in her Echoes in the Mountains series exploring the magic of elk in the Smokies.

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