It’s been some time since I read anything about the reintroduction of elk into the North Carolina mountains and I hadn’t given it any thought when planning our Blue Ridge mountain trip. It was an unexpected encounter when we found elk in the forest.
Reintroduction of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park began in 2001 when 25 elk were brought from the Land Between the Lakes National Area of Tennessee. In 2002, the National Park Service imported another 27 animals.
Right now reports indicate the elk are improving the mountain forest environment as the elks’ grazing is active enough to stimulate good plant regrowth. They keep fields clear by keeping the grasses shorter and make it easier to navigate for smaller animals, such as rabbit or turkey. It also makes it easier for birds of prey to search through the shorter grasses. They are also adding to the network of game trails in the forest. However the elk have been missing from this environment for over a hundred years and researchers are still studying the impact of their reintroduction watching for signs of stress in the ecosystem.
It was a surprise at finding the elk grazing near the Oconaluftee Visitors Center in the Smokeys on our first evening in the mountains. We returned to hike a nearby forest trail early the next morning.
As we got to the Visitors Center there were again a number of elk cows in the meadow and within a half hour on the trail we could hear bull elk calls and vocalizations across the river. As we approached the Oconaluftee river a cow approached along with three calves and began to ford the river.
Within minutes a bull came out of the forest calling to the cow and the four turned and disappeared into the forest.
What an amazing beginning to a Appalachian expedition!