Elk find welcoming home in Western North Carolina

Newly arrived elk have found a welcoming home in the mountains and meadows of Western North Carolina in the past 15 years.

The numbers and range of the animals have expanded from 52 pioneer elk released in Great Smoky Mountains National Park to an estimated 150-200 bulls and cows in the park, Cherokee tribal lands and private lands west of Asheville.

The population has grown to the point that the Wildlife Resources Commission staff is proposing a hunting season for elk.

At the same time, the non-profit Conservation Fund is buying land in mountains above the tourist town of Maggie Valley for elk habitat. The group plans to convey 1,559 acres to the wildlife commission for game lands for elk and other species. State money is helping pay for the tracts.

Some two dozen elk now live in Maggie Valley. “We see them on a regular basis,” said Junior Ward, a lifelong resident, as elk graze pastures and grassy swards. “You open the door, they stand there and look at you. They have no fear.”

“I think overall most of them (residents) are glad they’re here,” Ward said. “It’s a draw for tourists.”

The staff proposal calls for a permit-only hunt, probably chosen by lottery, in an Oct. 1-Nov. 1 season. If approved, North Carolina would join Kentucky and Tennessee as the third Southeastern state with elk hunting. With massive antlers and body weights of up to 1,000 pounds, an N.C. bull elk would be a highly prized trophy.

Justin McVey, the wildlife agency’s elk biologist, said before hunting can begin, the herd’s size must be determined to ensure the population can withstand the loss of a few bulls. To that end, McVey is fitting elk with radio collars to track their movements. He said home ranges can span 8,000 acres.

He estimated about half the population lives in the park; half outside. Young bulls have been seen from as far east as Max Patch Mountain, north of Asheville, and as far west as Clay County, 65 miles southwest of Maggie Valley.

Tennessee, with a herd of about 400, began elk hunting in 2009. This year, the state issued six bulls-only permits drawn by lottery from 9,285 applicants. A Fayetteville hunter won an auctioned permit with a high bid of $11,101, money that went for elk restoration.

In Maggie Valley, the Conservation Fund plans to convey a 561-acre tract on Sheepback Knob, valued at $2.7 million. N.C. director Bill Holman said the tract will be conveyed to the wildlife commission in early 2016.

Money for the land came from a $1 million grant in 2014 from the state’s Clean Water Management Trust Fund; $480,000 in federal gun and ammo excise tax funds; $20,000 from the Pigeon River Fund; and private donations.

In addition, the Conservation Fund has lined up two other elk tracts for $4.6 million between Sheepback Knob and the Blue Ridge Parkway to the west. On Nov. 19-20, the clean water fund approved $1.2 million to match $500,000 in private donations and $250,000 from the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to begin acquisition of the 783-acre Indian Creek tract. It also gave provisional approval for $1.2 million for nearby 215-acre Mashie Stomp Creek tract.

Both are to be conveyed to the wildlife agency. The three tracts will protect sources of Maggie Valley’s drinking water.

Wildlife commission spokeswoman Margaret Martin said the new game lands will be first for elk in the state.

In mid November, Ward took me on a tour of Sheepback Knob. He’s watershed land specialist for the Maggie Valley Sanitary District. We drove along a rutted road to the 5,520-foot-high summit. The steep tract is thickly wooded with beech, chestnut oak, hickory and other hardwoods.

Sheepback adjoins the park’s southern boundary. A ski resort, never built, was planned in the 1960s. No elk were seen that day.

McVey, the elk biologist, said the forested tracts will be modified to create habitat attractive to elk. The animals require grasses as well as browse.

He said wildlife managers will form meadow-like openings with tree thinning and controlled burns, providing forage not only for elk but also for species like wild turkey.

Kim Delozier of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a conservation and hunting group, said the foundation gave $10,000 for habitat work on Sheepback. Delozier said the group also wants to buy Maggie Valley propety for elk.

A former chief biologist for the Smokies, Delozier said bulls imported to the park in 2001-2002 weighed 500-700 pounds. He said today’s bulls exceed those weights and grow bigger antlers. “It’s a reflection of the better habitat,” he said.

A 998-pound bull was killed on U.S. 19 in Maggie Valley earlier this year, one of three elk road deaths there in 2015, McVey said.

Holman said the game lands will have multiple benefits. “You’re not only getting wildlife habitat but you’re also protecting Maggie Valley’s drinking water and Jonathan Creek,” he said. “It’s also making it easier to see elk and spend money in Maggie Valley.”

Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”