to the area 12 years ago, elk have quickly become a stately symbol
of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and surrounding areas.
When the elk are in the fields at Cataloochee or at the Oconaluftee
Visitors Center, cars filled with tourists line up to catch a view
of the majestic animals.
"As far as I am concerned, the reintroduction of the elk into
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has been one of the most exciting
events for western North Carolinians from all walks of life," said
Joyce Cooper who is the North Carolina state chairperson for the
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), and the co-chairperson of
the Great Smoky Mountains Chapter of the RMEF. "I traveled 2,000
miles to Yellowstone National Park to see my first elk, never dreaming
that twenty years later I could drive five miles to show family
and friends this magnificent animal."
Joseph Yarkovich, Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildlife
biologist, related that the program began in 2001 with 52 elk from
the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in Kentucky
and another 25 elk in 2002 from the Elk Island National Park in
When asked about the current size of the herd, he related, "Our
best estimate would put it at least 150 animals that includes animals
inside the National Park, in Cherokee, and on public lands in and
around the park."
Yarkovich related that a population estimate hasn't been done
in several years.
"The first few years the elk went through a learning curve dealing
with black bears as predators. Where they came from, they'd never
seen bears. But, they figured it out, learned how to defend themselves
and calf survival is much higher than it used to be."
He said it is hard to state how large of an elk population this
area could support, but he did say Park officials are always monitoring
reproduction, survival, disease risks, and monitoring environmental
impacts such as vegetative consumption.
reintroduction of the elk population to the Smokies has involved
a lot of various partners including the Great Smoky Mountains Chapter
of the RMEF, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the Great Smoky
Mountains Association, Friends of the Smokies, as well as individual
Cooper especially praised the work and support of the Tribe,
"The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has supported the efforts
of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation from the very beginning of
the project with their initial donation of $50,000. Chief Leon Jones,
Chief Michell Hicks, Vice Chief Larry Blythe, and Tribal Council
have actively, on a personal basis, financially supported our annual
She said that Dave Ensley, former manager of EBCI Fish &
Wildlife Department, and staff worked to ensure the safety of the
elk when they entered the Big Cove area back in April 2001. "Forrest
Parker and his staff continue this support today as they keep an
eye on the elk and plant food plots throughout the mountains for
Cooper added, "Personally, I cannot thank the Cherokee people
enough for the many phone calls with information about new babies
sighted or an accident, the donations, and the compliments from
the school children who see the elk almost daily and are still excited
to see them!"
"It's been a tremendous amount of work, but an awesome amount
of pleasure spent watching the babies born right here on the Oconaluftee
grow to adulthood and see their beautiful antlers grow each year."
Yarkovich summed up the herd's state, "The elk reintroduction
has been a pretty large success. We expect the herd to continue
to grow in the future."
The 20th Annual Big Game Banquet is being hosted by the Great
Smoky Mountains Chapter of the RMEF on Saturday, July 27 at Harrah's
Cherokee Casino Hotel. The event is held a fundraiser for the Foundation
and will feature several raffles and auctions. Info: Joyce Cooper
(828) 506-3308 or Joe Treadway (828) 230-6040.