It’s 7:30AM and an eerie bugling sound echoes through the valley. Mist hovers overs the open fields, hardwoods rise sharply toward the first light just edging over the mountain peaks. My heart is racing. More bugling, then another off in the distance. We’re here to catch a glimpse of these wild creatures, racks 4-5 feet across, towering over the massive chestnut body of the Eastern Elk…
Fifty years ago these wild creatures roamed unabated in these areas of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park near Waynesville, NC. Indians hunted them, settlers came and hunted them to extinction. About ten years ago, they were reintroduced to the Cataloochee Valley, once a prosperous proud settlement of the 1860s. The test to return Elk to the park and a more natural balance is working.
Today a thriving herd of Elk lives amongst the restored homes, the old church, school and outbuildings. And they are a photographers’ delight – especially in the fall, the time of the Rut. The velvet on the antlers is gone, replaced by smooth implements of battle. Battle for dominance of harems – the female Elk. A time of breeding. A time of growing the herd, and survival… Facing off with the older dominant bulls, young bulls challenge the right to the herd — but, in skirmishes the dominant bulls do not go quietly. Throughout the valley their bugle echoes the sound of battle, and warning off — ‘this is my territory and my girls – approach only with caution. Don’t test me!’ This is the rut.
The road into the Park from the North Carolina side, near Waynesville, begins at Cove Creek off Rt 276 by I-40 – a twisty paved two lane, once the original oxen trail blazed by ancient settlers. It rises more and after about 15 minutes turns to gravel. Some folks freak out and turn back. Rising upward, crossing the Eastern Continental Divide, we finally enter the gates of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, now descending toward the peaceful Cataloochee Valley and a paved road that extends the length of the former settlement. Cleared fields past the campground, hiking trails and rushing water, the ranger’s house and there they are – the Elk.
A bit of history…
The release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in February, 2001 with the importation of 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. In 2002, the park imported another 27 animals. All elk were radio collared and were monitored during the eight-year experimental phase of the project. In 2009-2010, the park began developing an environmental assessment of the program and a long-term management plan for elk. Project partners include the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Parks Canada, Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, Friends of the Smokies, the U.S.G.S. Biological Resources Division, and the University of Tennessee.
Joe Yarkovich, Wildlife Biologist, GSMNP, provides this update in a July 19, 2012 report… “The current elk population in western North Carolina is believed to be approximately 140 animals, counting those elk both inside and outside of National Park boundaries. Elk calving season is almost over and to date (2012) there has been 14 known calves born within GSMNP, 13 of which are still alive.” This is a great time to come and see the newborn calves traveling with their mothers. If you come to see the elk in Cataloochee or Oconaluftee, please remember the following to help you enjoy your visit and keep you and the elk safe.
● Bring binoculars and zoom lenses. This allows for great viewing and photos from a safe distance.
● Be very mindful of your food scraps and please clean up after yourself. This helps eliminate the chances of an elk becoming conditioned to human food, which usually leads to the demise of the animal.
● Stay in or near your vehicle when the elk are out, and please pull off the road where it is safe to do so to allow traffic to continue around you.
● Be patient! This allows everyone to have a better experience of the Smoky Mountains, at a Smoky Mountain pace!”
Elk are large animals-larger than the park’s black bears-and can be dangerous. Female elk with calves have charged people in defense of their offspring. Males (bulls) may perceive people as challengers to their domain and charge. The best way to avoid these hazards is to keep your distance.
Never touch or move elk calves. Though they may appear to be orphaned, chances are their mother is nearby. Cows frequently leave their newborn calves while they go off to feed. A calf’s natural defense is to lie down and remain still. The same is true for white-tailed deer fawns.
Adult male elk are known as “bulls” and weigh an average of 600-700 pounds. Female elk are called “cows” and average 500 pounds. Adults are 7-10 feet long from nose to tail and stand 4.5 – 5 feet tall at the shoulder. Adult males have antlers that may reach a width of five feet. Elk can live as long as 15 years.
Elk are vegetarian and eat grasses, forbs, and acorns, as well as the bark, leaves, and buds from shrubs and trees. Elk have an acute sense of smell and excellent eyesight to protect them from predators. Coyotes, bobcats, and black bears may kill young, sick, or injured elk, but adult elk are generally safe from predators in the park. Gray wolves and mountain lions, both of which have been extirpated from the Great Smoky Mountains, are successful predators of elk elsewhere.
Cows usually give birth to only one calf per year. Newborns weigh about 35 pounds. They can stand within minutes of birth and calf and cow usually rejoin the herd within a couple of weeks. Calves nurse for 1-7 months. Females are ready to breed in the second autumn of their lives.
Seasons of the Elk… In early spring most elk shed their antlers–usually in March. The antlers, which are rich in calcium, are quickly eaten by rodents and other animals. (It is illegal to remove antlers from the national park.) After they have shed their antlers, elk immediately begin growing new ones. In late spring elk shed their winter coats and start growing sleek, copper-colored, one-layer summer coats. Most calves are born in early June. During the hot summer months, male elk roll in mud wallows to keep cool and avoid insect pests. By August, elk antlers are full grown and have shed their “velvet.” Calves have lost their spots by summer’s end. During the fall breeding season, known as “rut”, male elk make their legendary bugling calls to challenge other bulls and attract cows. Their calls may be heard a mile or more away. Large bulls use their antlers to intimidate and spar with other males. Most encounters are ritualistic and involve little physical contact; only occasionally do conflicts result in serious injuries to one or more combatants. During the rut in September and early October, dominant bulls gather and breed with harems of up to 20 cows. In winter elk wear a two-layer coat during the colder months. Long guard hairs on the top repel water and a soft, wooly underfur keeps them warm. Elk may move from the high country to valleys to feed.
The use of spotlights, elk bugles, and other wildlife calls are illegal in the national park. It is also illegal to remove elk antlers or other elk parts from the park. Never feed elk or other wildlife or bait them in for closer observation. Feeding park wildlife is strictly forbidden by law and almost always leads to the animal’s demise. It also increases danger to other park visitors. Every year park animals must be destroyed because of mistakes humans make.
In the event you can’t get to see the elk in rut, other times of the year will yield a great experience. In the spring & summer fawn will be romping with their mothers and as elk prepare for the rut they grow a unique velvet on their antlers. As breeding season nears they can be seen scraping the velvet covering off to get ready for the September – October Rut season.
While viewing the elk it is best to use binoculars or a camera’s telephoto lens. If using an SLR camera, a telephoto lens can help to capture activity in the distance. If planning to be there in early morning, you’ll need a tripod as available light may be as low as 1/15 second and trying to hand hold your camera will most likely result in blurry images. The only recourse for hand holding may be to increase the ISO to 1600 – 6400. In that case any resulting “noise” may need to be modified in a post production program.
The elk often wander around and across the road within range of a Point and Shoot camera. However, best time to see the elk is early morning or late afternoon. We usually go in the early morning before 8AM as the Elk often retire to the shelter of the woods by 9:30. There are also fewer people in the morning and, if lucky with the weather, you can have mist which really helps create a great atmosphere for pictures.
What to do when the elk go in… ?
Fortunately, the Park Service has restored and maintained some of the original buildings from the early settlers to this area. The are open to the public and offer a unique look into our early 19th century population in this area. The Caldwell House and Barn is located near the end of the two lane road which you will be on. Returning to the park entrance, signs point the way to cemeteries, the Palmer Church, and the school house. Past the campground, on the road to the left you will find the Palmer House built in 1869, barn, spring house, and a building which has been turned into an interpretive center with maps, photos, a small museum of farm and working implements used by the settlers.
Also, Hattie Caldwell Davis, who lived part of her childhood in Cataloochee Valley, has interviewed many of the descendants who resettled in Waynesville, NC and surrounding area. Those recollections been published as a most interesting book entitled, “Reflections of Cataloochee Valley and its Vanished People in the Great Smoky Mountains,” available at Amazon.com.
Camping is available in Cataloochee Valley. The secluded setting offers visitors the ability to enjoy a multitude of recreational activities like hiking and fishing, without the crowds, which are sometimes common in other parts of the park. Twenty Seven non electric sites are along the river and off water but advance registration is required (1-877-444-6777). Best to google Cataloochee Campground to get the URL.
There are also campgrounds available on Rt 276 and many motels and hotels in Maggie Valley, NC or Waynesville, NC
For additional information about the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and updates to the Elk population go to http://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm.