Everything You Need to Know About Elk in the Great Smoky Mountains

Did you know Elk are prevalent in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park?  It has been about 150 years since elk wandered throughout Tennessee. Now, you can catch sightings of them exploring the park with their herds. Here is everything you need to know about elk in the Great Smoky Mountains:

Elk History in Appalachia

elkElk once roamed the southern Appalachian Mountains and elsewhere in the eastern United States. They were eliminated from the region by over-hunting and loss of habitat. The last elk in North Carolina was believed to have been killed in the late 1700s. In Tennessee, the last elk was killed in the mid-1800s. By 1900, the population of elk in North America dropped to the point that hunting groups and other conservation organizations became concerned the species was headed for extinction.

A primary mission of the National Park Service is to preserve native plants and animals on lands it manages. In cases where native species have been eliminated from park lands, the National Park Service may choose to reintroduce them. Successful wildlife reintroductions in Great Smoky Mountains National Park have included the river otter, Peregrine Falcon, and three species of small fish.

Reintroduction of Elk

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) decided to reintroduce elk to the state in the late 1990’s. Part of the agency’s mission is to restore extirpated wildlife when and where it is biologically and sociologically feasible. Beginning in December 2000, the agency began conducting small releases of elk from Elk Island National Park (AL, Canada) into the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area. There were 201 elk in total that were released over a period of eight years.
It is currently estimated that the Tennessee elk herd numbers a little over 300 head strong. With this estimate, in 2009, Tennessee announced their first ever elk hunt in almost 150 years.

Several partners have been involved with the project and contributed by doing the things they do best. The partners include the Rocky Mountain Elk foundation, Parks Canada, Campbell County Outdoor Recreation Association, Tennessee Wildlife Federation, University of Tennessee and the U.S. Forest Service TWRA, the Safari Club International (SCI) and the Chattanooga Chapter of SCI.

Basic Elk Facts

Adult male elk weigh an average of 600-700 pounds, while the cows (females) 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. These creatures can live up to 15 yeas and have acute sense of smell and great eyesight. Elk typically eat a variety of grasses, forbs, and acorns, as well as bark, leaves, and buds from shrubs and trees.

elkGrown elk have very few natural predators in the Smokies. Coyotes, bobcats, and black bears may kill young, sick, or injured elk. 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, and the newborns typically 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.

When to View Elk

The best times to view elk are usually early morning and late evening. Elk may also be active on cloudy summer days and before or after storms. Enjoy elk at a distance, using binoculars or a spotting scope for close-up views. Approaching wildlife too closely causes them to expend crucial energy unnecessarily and can result in real harm. If you approach an animal so closely that it stops feeding, changes direction of travel, or otherwise alters its behavior, you are too close! Most of the elk are located in the Cataloochee area in the southeastern section of the park.

Now that you know all about elk in the Great Smoky Mountains, you can plan to look for them on your next trip. Learn more about the Smokies area and start planning your next vacation to the mountains today!