Elk are returning to the Bald Mountains

Nearly surrounded by national forest and wilderness, the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork watershed adjoins the Appalachian Trail corridor, Sampson Mountain Wilderness, and Bald Mountain Roadless Area, the largest area of its kind between Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah national parks. Its former logging tracks crisscross the property in a network of unimproved woods roads, ideal for exploring the remote backcountry—and possibly for a new population of elk to settle in.

That’s right, elk! Ever since elk were re-introduced to the Smokies and not-so-far-away areas of Kentucky, folks have wondered if the animals would expand their range and re-populate the Rocky Fork area. The elk seen dead beside I-26 at Sam’s Gap on October 12 is a sign that the elk are coming towards Unicoi County—and they may have already been here for some time.

Bull elk killed on I-26 East just below Sam’s Gap on October 12. Image by Stephanie Thomas Wood.

“Animals that pop up in Western North Carolina or East Tennessee are not always from the Smokies, but I think our herd is the source for most,” said Kim DeLozier of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. “It’s also possible that they moved from Kentucky or maybe someone even released captive elk.”

It’s exciting to think we may soon be able to see elk when we hike in Rocky Fork. But there are concerns that we must be prepared to address if we are going to welcome these animals back to these mountains they once roamed. Much larger than deer, elk are grazers and and thus can cause problems for farmers, so we will need to work together and communicate with elk researchers in order to deal with new issues and limit damage.

Due to their size, elk also create a dangerous situation when they get out on our roads. There is a documented rise in motor vehicle collisions with wildlife throughout East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. Due to increasing populations—both animal and human—as well as growing tourism in the area, it is expected that this situation will only get worse.

“We counted up to 60 elk this fall on tribal lands, and elk like to move great distances,” said Caleb R. Hickman, supervisory fish and wildlife biologist with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). “Right now, over 40 elk are known to walk across Highway 19, and another 12 across the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the mountains create tight, windy roads with blind curves. These smaller highways are particularly dangerous to elk and people.”

Bull elk in Cataloochee Valley, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Image by Joye Ardyn Durham.

Liz Hillard, a wildlife scientist with the nonprofit Wildlands Network, and Steve Goodman, a wildlife researcher with National Parks Conservation Association, are researching how roadways in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina influence the connectivity of bear, deer and elk habitat. They are conducting road mortality surveys and procuring mortality data from state agencies (TDOT, NCDOT and NCWRC) along I-40 in the Pigeon River Gorge to determine wildlife mortality hotspots. They are also working with partners to put GPS collars on elk to assess roadway movement patterns and elk road-crossing behavior.

“The frequency of elk–vehicle collisions is likely to increase through time as road networks continue to expand, the elk population continues to grow, and traffic volume increases,” Hillard says. “This research will provide information to guide mitigation strategies to increase human safety, reduce elk–vehicle collisions, and increase the connectivity of public lands as elk disperse.”

We would love to hear of elk sightings, living or dead, and will pass the information on to researchers. Email Frances Figart with any images or information.

Learn more about wildlife crossing and road mitigation here.

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